Encouraged by Lord Plumer, the British High Commissioner, Breasted approached American philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr.. Rockefeller agreed to donate the sum of two million dollars, an enormous amount of money in those days. Previously, he had offered to build an archeological museum in Cairo, Egypt, but he was turned down, possibly due to pressure from the British government, which was anxious to keep America from establishing a foothold in the region.
A short while after the donation was announced, a site was chosen for the building—Kerem el-Sheik—a hill located just outside the northeastern corner of the Old City walls.
The museum was designed by Austen St. Barbe Harrison, chief architect of the Mandatory Department of Public Works, who drew up blueprints for a white limestone building integrating eastern and western architectural elements.
Officially, it was called the Palestine Archaeological Museum, but from the outset it was known as the Rockefeller Museum.
The museum was run by an international board of trustees until 1966, when it was nationalized by King Hussein of Jordan. Soon after, the 1967 Six-Day War broke out and control of the museum fell into Israeli hands. During the war, the building was captured by Israeli soldiers and its hexagonal tower was used as a lookout. Fierce fighting took place here between Israeli and Jordanian forces, ending in an Israeli victory and the occupation of East Jerusalem.
Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran between 1947 and 1956, consisting of Jewish texts and commentaries, were purchased by Israel soon after they were unearthed. Others were housed in the Rockefeller Museum and moved to the Shrine of the Book after the 1967 war. At a conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1997, this was criticized by the head of the Palestinian Archaeology Department.