The foresight and idea of building a museum and learning center were first conceived by M.S. Swaminathan—then director general of IRRI—in 1983. The number of visitors at IRRI increased through the years, and he started to notice the busloads of schoolchildren. However, there was really nothing much for visitors that young to see that would make them appreciate the history and value of rice. Dr. Swaminathan wrote “... rice will become increasingly important in the next century and beyond because of the wide amplitude of its adaptation. It is, therefore, important that young students who come in large numbers to IRRI have an opportunity to learn about the antiquity and fascinating history of the rice plant.”
For some time, not much progress was achieved toward the realization of Dr. Swaminathan's vision, until Klaus Lampe—also a director general of IRRI—revived the idea in 1993. With the help of a grant from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) of the Federal Republic of Germany, the idea became reality.
The Riceworld Museum was formally opened on 22 September 1994 by H.E. Karl-Friedrich Gansäuer, the ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Philippines at Chandler Hall. Also located in Chandler Hall is the Havener Auditorium. This auditorium was dedicated on 7 April 2006 in honor of Dr. Robert D. Havener, who served as Interim Director General of IRRI for 8 months in 1998. His visionary leadership at IRRI created conducive environments in which scientific ideas and research programs would flourish, ultimately leading to increased food production around the world.
IRRI Riceworld is a permanent exhibit of artifacts and implements from around the rice-growing world, as well as a learning center for rice production and research and their importance in global food production. The exhibit is dedicated to rice farmers around the world. A major part of IRRI Riceworld is devoted to more than 200 rice farming tools for different stages of cultivation: plows, carts, scythes, knives, a mud-carrying drag-sled, and others. Rice machinery developed and modified at IRRI, including a stove fueled by rice husks, is also on display. One area of IRRI Riceworld is dominated by the 7.5-ton wooden sculpture by renowned Japanese sculptor Mitsuaki Tanabe. “Momi,” the Japanese word for an unhulled grain of wild rice, is a modern sculpture depicting a seed partially out of the ground. The shoot, root, and root hairs are featured to represent vitality at germination, an essential characteristic of wild plants.
Riceworld has undergone several improvements over the years, and the visitors grew in number as well. In 1997, Riceworld received up to 120,000 guests, and the number averages 50,000 per year. Visitors are a mixed group of local and international groups. However, 70–80% of visitors are made up of students.
In 2004, Riceworld celebrated its 10th year—happily coinciding with the International Year of Rice.
In 2014, the museum celebrated its 20th year with the theme Riceworld@20: Where rice is twice as nice. This is also in commemoration of the Philippines' Rice Awareness Month in November, which also highlighted the value of rice as the country staple.