The Society was established in 1844 by Norwegian artists who had discovered their cultural heritage during artistic excursions to the countryside. The founders were inspired by organisations dedicated to cultural history abroad. In the vanguard were the painters Johann Christian Dahl and Joachim Frich. Historians, art historians and archaeologists took part in the activities of the Society from the beginning.
The Society is a national organisation based on voluntary efforts and was founded and run by prominent personalities at a time when the Norwegian public had not yet become aware of the country's cultural heritage.
The Society owns more than 40 properties, among them eight stave churches (among them those at Borgund, Hopperstad, Urnes, Nore and Kvernes) and four stone ones. Practically all the properties are conserved by and under the administration of the chapter to which they belong.