The museum's collections date back to 1890 with the formation of the West Virginia Historical and Antiquarian Society. The state museum first opened in 1894 and was located in the old state capitol building in downtown Charleston. The museum's collection was later moved to a separate annex-a decision that may have saved the archives from destruction in the 1921 capitol fire. When the current state capitol was completed in 1932, the museum and archives were located in the basement.
During the 1970s, the state funded the construction of a separate building for its Division of Culture and History. Completed in 1976 largely due to the support of then-governor Arch Moore, the Cultural Center and other buildings on the capitol complex replaced a city block that had been home to several restaurants and retail outlets. The project was controversial at the time, as many residents opposed the cost of the construction project while others questioned the efficacy of the state using eminent domain. Still, others questioned the wisdom of expanding the size of the capitol complex and questioned the benefit of an expanded museum and cultural center.
Starting in 2001 and completed in 2008, the museum underwent major renovations that modernized, improved, and expanded the exhibits. In addition to exhibits, the museum offers a gift shop on the entry floor that features art, jewelry, food, and assorted baubles produced by West Virginia natives.
The Culture Center complex also holds the West Virginia State Archives and History Library which is also available to residents and visitors at no cost. The Bureau of Archives and History was created in 1905. It then became a department in 1925 and remained a department until 1977. Since West Virginia was part of Virginia until June 20, 1863, the Archives and History Library contains some materials on Virginia among the West Virginia material. Resources available include an online database of material held at the Library. The Archives and Library hold primary state records including births and deaths in West Virginia since 1853, marriages, wills, deeds, and estate records. Additionally, the public can access census records, military records, and other records via microfilm, maps, manuscripts, and photographs.