At the age of 12, he joined the Royal Navy, served in the Mediterranean and West Indies, but left after five years due to poor health. The secretary of the department was Henry Cole (later to be the first Director of the South Kensington Museum). Cole appointed Cunliffe-Owen as one of the superintendents of the British section in the 1855 Exposition Universelle, held at Paris.
Cunliffe-Owen was an expert in French, which proved very helpful.
In 1857, Cunliffe-Owen became deputy general superintendent of the new South Kensington Museum. In 1860, he was promoted to be Assistant Director in 1860, second in command to Henry Cole, who was the Director.
Cunliffe-Owen acted as director of the foreign sections for the 1862 International Exhibition in London. He helped Cole as assistant executive commissioner for the Paris 1867 Exposition Universelle.
He was appointed secretary of the Royal Commission and to represent Britain at the 1873 Weltausstellung in Vienna, Austria, reporting to the Edward, Prince of Wales.
Foreign the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, United States, Cunliffe-Owen was Great Britain"s executive commissioner for Great Britain and visited the United States to make the initial arrangements. Two years later, Cunliffe-Owen was again Secretary of the Royal Commission for the Paris 1878 Exposition Universelle. In 1893, on Cunliffe-Owen"s retirement as Director, the South Kensington Museum was split into the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum.
In 1864, Cunliffe-Owen was elected a member of the Society of Arts and in 1879 he was appointed to the society"s council.