The museum originated as a traditional open air museum following the pattern of Skansen, portraying chiefly the social life of the northern counties of Ireland in the early twentieth century. It was established in 1958 and opened in 1964 as the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra Manor, 8 km north-east of Belfast. Three years later it was amalgamated with the Belfast Transport Museum as the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and the road and rail galleries at Cultra were opened in 1993. In 1998, with the Ulster Museum and the Ulster-American Folk Park, it became part of the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland.
Several of the buildings in the 68-hectare folk museum illustrate vividly the history of traditional textile manufacturing in Ireland. They include a water-powered scotching mill from Gorticashel, Upper, Co Tyrone, the cottage of a handloom weaver of linen cloth from Ballyduggan, Co Down, and a bleach green in the centre of which is a circular stone tower from Tullylish, Co Down, with spy-holes for the custodian. The museum also has large collections of linen, lace and embroidery made in the north of Ireland, both by domestic workers and in factories. Traditional arable cultivation in much of Ireland depended on the spade rather than the plough. The manufacture of spades is demonstrated at a water-driven spade mill of circa 1840 from Coalisland, Co Tyrone, which operated until the 1950s.
The Museum’s transport collection is situated across the road from the Folk Museum between the Belfast to Bangor railway line and the sea. Railway exhibits include the 4-6-0 Maedb, built in 1939, one of the most powerful class of locomotives that worked in Ireland, a carriage from the Dublin & Kingstown Railway, the first in Ireland opened in 1834, and numerous vehicles from Irish narrow gauge lines. The transport collection also includes aircraft, motor cars, trams and motor cycles, all with Irish connections, and the Museum has many artefacts relating to the RMS Titanic, which was built in Belfast.
Cultra Manor which was built for the diplomat Sir Robert Kennedy in 1902-04, was restored and re-opened in May 2011.