The museum is located within a former private mansion of banker Alfred Heidelbach (1852-1922), built in 1913 by René Sergent. The hotel was purchased by the Ministry of Education in 1955 and renovated in 1991. In 2001 a tea pavilion was built in the garden, in which tea ceremonies are now performed.
Its collection includes some 250 Japanese works of art, plus Chinese artefacts, gathered in 1876 by Émile Étienne Guimet. Icons are presented as they appear in Buddhist temples, within a hierarchy of six categories ranging from saints, Shinto and Hindu divinities, kings of science, bodhisattvas, and buddhas.