Curatorial responsibility for many of the objects relating to American cultural history was originally divided between various divisions and departments in the United States National Museum. When the Museum of History and Technology (MHT) was set up in 1957, these responsibilities were transferred to the newly established Department of Civil History. From 1964 to 1968 the Department included the Divisions of Political History, Cultural History, Philately and Postal History, and Numismatics; in 1967, the Divisions of Musical Instruments and Growth of the United States were added to the Department. Growth of the United States was a unit in the Department, circa 1958 to 1965, and from 1965 to 1967 it was administered by the assistant director of MHT. In 1969, when MHT was renamed the National Museum of History and Technology, administrative reorganizations within the Museum included the name change of this department to the Department of Cultural History. This Department included the Divisions of Costume and Furnishings, Ethnic and Western Cultural History, Musical Instruments, and Preindustrial Cultural History.
Richard H. Howland was appointed chairman of the Department of Civil History in 1965; previously, he had been the Department's head curator. Howland's successors as chairman have included C. Malcolm Watkins, acting chairman, 1968, and chairman, 1969-1972; Rodris C. Roth, acting chairman, 1973-1974; and Richard E. Ahlborn, chairman, 1975- .