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 by Christian Giordano (who was appointed museum director), carried out the inventory of the artworks, set up the museum and curated the first catalogue. 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 Paolo Campione as curator and later as director. In October 2005, Professor Campione presented a proposal called The Activity System,which remains the basis of the museum's current scientific management.
During a hearing session on the 10th of January 2007, the City of Lugano approved the proposal of changing the museum's name from “Museo delle Culture Extraeuropee” (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 “Museo delle Culture Extraeuropee” 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. “Museo delle Culture Extraeuropee” 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 chapter awaits the Museum of Cultures: the city of Lugano has decided to entrust the upcoming Fondazione Culture e Musei with the management of the Museo delle Culture. This foundatiois tasked to ensure the functioning of the Museo delle Culture by preserving its identity, autonomy and mission. The Foundation will allow a more efficient management, also thanks to its new headquarters at Villa Malpensata, who is being renewed and enlarged for the occasion. As such, this evolution of status and location will enable further sinergies and economies of scope, and intensify the interaction with the territory and the public. Consequently, the Musuem will benefit from the resulting outcomes, that will alllow to continues and improve its work, in every aspect its countless activities.