Historically, the constitution of the Museum’s collections dates back to the 18th century. The initial gift came in the form of the donation by general Charles Daniel de Meuron of his private natural history museum to the city of Neuchâtel in 1795.

After several relocations and share-outs, the ethnographic collection was transferred to the villa on St-Nicolas street that had been specifically donated by James-Ferdinand de Pury to house the MEN, which was eventually inaugurated on the 14 July 1904.

In 1954–1955, a building was erected to accommodate temporary exhibitions, with a fresco by Hans Erni Les conquêtes de l'homme adorning its north-facing outdoor wall.

In 1986, a new construction was squeezed in between the first two buildings to provide premises for the extension of Neuchâtel University’s Institute for ethnological studies. Financially distinct, these two entities nonetheless complement each other.

To this day, the MEN boasts a wealth of some 50,000 items, with the African collections accounting for about half of these: eastern and South Africa; 1930s Angola; Sahara and Sahel (Tuaregs and Moors); Gabon. The Museum also keeps Asian, Eskimo and Oceanian collections, non-European musical instruments and items from ancient Egypt. Its innovative, audacious and stimulating exhibitions have gained international renown.