Opened in 1970/71 and originally based at Pool, halfway between Camborne and Redruth, its first director was Charles Thomas who led the institute with Oliver Padel and Myrna Combellack in research into archaeology, Cornish place-names and Cornish medieval dramas. After Thomas retired, Philip Payton took over as director from 1991 and changed the direction of research towards contemporary matters, publishing a collection of essays on modern Cornwall in 1993 entitled Cornwall Since the War.
In 1994 the Institute moved to Truro, at the University's Department of Lifelong Learning. In 2000 Garry Tregidga and Bernard Deacon joined the Institute, which moved again in 2004 to the Tremough campus. The campus was renamed in 2013 to Penryn Campus.
At Penryn the ICS is home to two major externally funded research programmes: the Cornwall Audio Visual Archive, for the study and documentation of the oral and visual culture of Cornwall, and the Cornish Communities Programme, which currently concentrates on questions of migration, community, family and identity in Cornwall at different geographical scales. In 2007 it was to benefit from a £10,000,000 package supporting new posts in, amongst other subject areas, Celtic Studies.
The Institute publishes an annual journal entitled Cornish Studies. The first series, under Charles Thomas, was published from 1973 to 1988. It was relaunched by Payton in 1993 and publication, by University of Exeter Press, continued for 21 volumes before Payton retired.