The museum set up by Léon de Laborde (who was director general of the Archives of the Empire from 1857 to 1868) had a forerunner in Jean Antoine Letronne's "Sigillographic Museum" (the general warden of the Archives from 1840 to 1848), which had exhibited about 13,000 seal impressions in the Salle des gardes since 1847. Laborde built on this, adding a presentation of over 1,800 documents, all produced by French institutions or leading French figures, and exclusively about French national territory. Laborde and his colleagues spent five years selecting the documents, which involved identifying the acts and extracting them from their original series, since it was a matter of creating a fictitious collection of documents for the museum, with its own classification and numbering system.
In addition to this "French Museum", which opened on 19 July 1867, a "Foreign Museum" about France's military and diplomatic presence around the world was set up on the ground floor in 1878.
The museum collections were ordered as follows:
AE I (Armoire de fer), AE II (Museum of French documents), AE III (Museum of foreign documents), AE IV (Sigillographic collections), AE V (Incriminating evidence and seized items), AE VI (Historic objects). The AE IV subseries no longer exists, since it was replaced by the Centre for Sigillography and Heraldry. See the ARCHIM database.
- AE I Armoire de fer
- AE II Museum of French documents
This subseries is made up of the old record group corresponding to the selection made by Laborde and his colleagues when the museum was set up, to which have been added the new record group of pieces progressively added to the museum. This old record group is a continuous chronological series from the Merovingians to the First Empire. It also contains the oldest document conserved by the Archives Nationales (a confirmation by Clotaire II of a donation made to the Abbey of Saint Denis, 625) the interrogation of the Templars in 1307, and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
- AE III Museum of foreign documents
This subseries contains diplomatic documents and treaties about relations between France and foreign powers. For example, the ratification of the Treaty of Ardres signed by Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France in 1546, and a letter sent to Napoleon I in 1806 from Fath-Ali Shah, Emperor of Persia.
- AE V Incriminating evidence and seized items
This subseries is made up of objects removed from police or case files with which they were conserved as incriminating evidence. The oldest date back to the mid-18th century, and the most recent to the 1960s: Damiens' assassination attempt against Louis XV (1757), the Choiseul-Praslin case (1747), and the OAS trial (1959-1965)
- AE VI Historic objects
This subseries comes from three sources. Certain objects were directly deposited with the Archives Nationales as historic monuments (such as the model of the Bastille, weights and measures prototypes, keys to town gates taken from the enemy, the objects from the Hôtel de Soubise and Hôtel de Rohan, etc). Others in the same spirit were either gifts or purchases, such as the portfolio of Minister Clarke, and the tapestry from the Hôtel de Rohan depicting the story of Achilles. The third group were contained in archival files and have been removed so as to be better conserved. All the paintings from the decor of the Hôtel de Soubise and Hôtel de Rohan (notably the panels above the doors) have been attributed the reference number AE VI.