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The University Museum was established by the Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees on March 8, 1979, in response to the recommendations of two task forces.

The first of the task forces, a Cultural Arts Programs task force, had been established on February 1, 1978, by Earl Lazerson, Vice President and Provost. That task force was established to make recommendations regarding Academic Affairs cultural arts programs which were a function of a department created in December of 1976 as the Office of Cultural Arts Services with primary functions of managing a year-round performing arts program including the Mississippi River Festival.

The other task force was established about the same time to make recommendations regarding what was referred to as the Architectural Arts Program. The name of the program was a reflection of it original establishment as a function under the direction of the University Architect. While the University was still in the planning stages, a conscious decision was made to have works of art displayed throughout the campus. To that end, Katherine Kuh, art critic for the Saturday Review at the time, was enlisted by University President Delyte Morris to acquire works of art for both Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses. Installation and management of the collection here fell to the University Architect. Much of the character and use of the collection was established while the buildings were still under construction. It was during this time that the University negotiated the beneficial purchase of the core of the Sullivan Ornament Collection.

In 1969, responsibility for the collection was transferred to Dr. Harry Hilberry who was just completing a term as Chairman of the Department of Art and Design. In his role as Co-coordinator of the Architectural Arts Program, Dr. Hilberry reported to Dr. Andrew Kochman, Dean of the Fine Arts Division (as it was called at the time.) Dr. Hilberry employed a graduate assistant and a couple of undergraduate students to assist in creating the first documentation of the collection. This marked the first time when anything resembling museum practices were put into effect. In January of 1975, responsibility for the Architectural Arts Program was given to a staff assistant, Michael Mason, who reported directly to Dean Hollis White.

Thus, in 1979 the two functions were combined as the Office of Cultural Arts and University Museums. It was thought at the time that Andrew Kochman would become the first Director of the unit, but he decided instead to retire from SIUE. A search committee selected David Huntley, former chair of the Department of Art and Design, as the founding director of the department. The mission of the unit was to include both a series of programs that including concerts and theatrical performances by external artists and responsibility for the "display, maintenance, security, and development of the art architectural and anthropological collection and exhibits at SIUE." A small collection that had been established by the Department of Art & Design was immediately merged with the Architectural Arts Program collection. Soon afterwards objects were transferred from several other units.

In 1985, the Cultural Arts function was moved into a new unit to become the Arts & Issues program that still exists. In 1987, the University adopted a policy that allowed for the establishment of a collection by any academic unit on campus. This policy has since been informally expanded to allow for the creation of a collection by the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.

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