The Museo delle Culture safeguards most of the ethnic artworks collected by Swiss Italian artist Serge Brignoni (1903-2002) between 1930 and 1985. In 1985 Brignoni donated his collection to the City of Lugano. The City decided to house the Brignoni collection in the Villa Heleneum, an outstanding neoclassical mansion set in a tropical and subtropical botanical garden, thus creating the Museo delle Culture (the Museum of Cultures). The museum was first opened to the public on the 24th of September 1989. Brignoni and a team of researchers headed up by Christian Giordano (who was appointed museum director), carried out the inventory of the artworks, set up the museum and curated the first catalog. In 1992 Giordano resigned and Carla Burani took over until 1996. During the following ten years the museum was neglected by the City's cultural policy and risked closure. However, the local press revealed a proposal to sell the collections and this sparked a wave of public protest in the summer of 2004. The new local government decided to relaunch the museum by appointing Francesco PaoloChampion as its curator and later as its director. In October 2005, Professor Campione presented a project proposal entitled The Activity System, which remains the core basis of the museum's current scientific management programme.
During a hearing session on the 10th of January 2007, the City of Lugano approved the proposal of changing the museum's name from "Museum of Extra-European Cultures" (Museum of Extra-European Cultures) to “Museo delle Culture” (The Museum of Cultures). This decision was based on the need to revise an anachronistic and, in a certain sense, incorrect definition. The name “Museum of Extra-European Cultures” did not convey the true nature of the museum's collections, nor any specific aim. In fact, this name was the result of an ideological compromise which characterized the history of anthropological thought in the 1970s and 1980s. “Museum of Extra-European Cultures” was a solution designed to surpass the old definitions of “Ethnographical Museum”, “Museum of Ethnology” and “Museum of Primitive Arts ". Towards the mid 1980's, these definitions seemed to carry a heavy weight of 'otherness', determined on the basis of an ethnocentric worldview. Such terminology did not express the definitive absorption of ethnological / ethnographic paradigms into the much wider field of anthropological sciences. The deliberate choice of “Museo delle Culture” (Museum of Cultures) conveys the museum's cultural patrimony from a scientific point of view. The name also underlines the museum's vital task of exploring all forms of ancient and modern ethnic art, as well as Oriental Art and modern themes within the field of the Anthropology of Art and Cultural Anthropology.
A new road has opened up upon MUSEC's path. In fact, the Municipality of Lugano has decided to entrust the management of the Museum to the Culture and Museums Foundation, which ensures its operation whilst maintaining its identity, autonomy and overall image. The Foundation allows for a more effective management, capable, thanks also to the move to the new premises at Villa Malpensata, of generating further synergies and economies of scope, and of intensifying the interaction with the territory and the public. MUSEC, in this way, derives innumerable advantages, which allow it to continue and improve the work carried out to date across all areas of its countless activities.