The Vatican Museums Department of XIX Century and Contemporary Art was established in 1973, at the same time as the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art – then the Collection of Modern Religious Art – with the task of studying, protecting, valuing, disseminating and increasing the art-historical heritage from the nineteenth century to the present day.

The idea of creating a section entirely dedicated to contemporary art, within the exhibition itinerary of the museum, dates back to 1964, when Pope Paul VI, elected shortly beforehand, convoked, in the Sistine Chapel, representatives of the world of art. The challenge was bold and came from the highest level: the pontiff wished to re-establish the severed link between contemporary culture and the Church.
In this way there began the complex phase of selecting and collecting works, which was conducted by his personal secretary, Msgr. Pasquale Macchi, along with Msgr. Giovanni Fallani and Msgr. Ennio Francia, through relationships and contacts with artists, their heirs, galleries, and public and private institutions.
In almost ten years of work, without employing any resources of the Holy See, a nucleus of around 900 works of art was constituted, initially acquired as a private collection of the pontiff, to document not only religious art but rather the spirituality of international art, in one of the most fruitful and complex periods in the history of western art. But the most ambitious aim of Pope Montini was that of not imposing any limit – chronological, geographic, or of faith, religion or race – to the possibility that the search for the sacred in the art of the present might find a place within the Museums, to which this collection was destined. In this way the growth of the Collection has never been interrupted, and today it consists of around 8400 works.

On 23 June 1973, the Collection was opened to the public, and in 1974 Mario Ferrazza was appointed as Curator, a role he occupied until 2000, when he was succeeded by Micol Forti.
Aside from the works in the Collection, the Department studies, protects and values the mobile and immobile heritage from the nineteenth century to the present day conserved in the Museum environment (Room of the Immaculate Conception, Room of Tributes, Gallery of the Candelabra, New Wing, Chiaramonti Museum) the Apostolic Palaces, the Major Basilicas and the extra-territorial areas.