Museum of Life and Science

The Museum of Life and Science is a children’s museum located in Durham, North Carolina. The 84-acre facility is comprised of both indoor and outdoor exhibits, boasting one of the largest butterfly conservatories on the East Coast. Its mission is to create a community where science can be taught to children as ‘a way of knowing about themselves, their community, and their world.’ It focuses on hands-on and interactive exhibits to educate kids about concepts in natural and physical sciences.

The museum began in 1946 as North Carolina’s first trailside nature center. It was then known as “The Children’s Museum” and its first few collections included minerals, fossils and aerospace artifacts. Today, it has expanded beyond its original capacity to encompass a two-story science center and a vast outdoor activity space with some 60 species of animals living onsite.

Having entertained generations of locals and tourists, the museum remains one of the state’s top attractions. It has consistently been ranked as one of the most family friendly museums in the Southeast, and frequently conducts science-based summer camps and workshops. Photo: Photo: Museum of Life and Science

»Indoor Exhibits

Indoor Exhibits


With more than 60,000 square feet of indoor space, there are plenty of exhibits that cover topics from the natural and physical world. Visitors of all ages can learn about the fundamentals of math and physics in various age-appropriate activities in Math Moves, Flip It, Fold It and Contraptions. They can also observe a tornado at the Weather exhibit or visualize movement and sound in artistic displays at Soundscape. The following are three all-time favorites among museum visitors.

Magic Wings Butterfly House

Standing at 35-foot tall, the Magic Wings Butterfly House is a highlight that cannot be missed. The museum houses one of the largest butterfly houses on the East Coast, which allows visitors to experience the diversity of life inside a tropical rainforest environment. The temperature inside the glass conservatory is kept at a constant level throughout the year, providing a good reprieve from cold winter or blistering summer days

The exhibit supports a diverse ecosystem, including more than 50 species of butterflies from Asia to Central America, as well as over 250 species of flora and fauna that provide nectar and pollen for the butterflies. Various species of birds also roam the ground as they play their part in controlling the spread of pests in the controlled environment. Be sure to witness insect keepers releasing newly emerged butterflies into the conservatory on a daily basis. This is a sight that delights adults and kids alike.

Inside the conservatory, there is also insectarium that is dedicated to exotic creepy-crawlies from all around the world, such as beetles, cockroaches and spiders. The exhibit emphasizes on the ecological importance of these invertebrates and the critical roles that they play in maintaining the ecosystem despite them being relatively small in size. Although most of these creepy-crawlies are placed behind a glass display, with the help of modern technology visitors can view them up-close. One station allows users to take control of a video camera and investigate how caterpillars eat in great detail, a function that is sure to make some people squirm and squeal.

Aerospace

The museum has traditionally been known for its indoor aerospace gallery, which first opened in 1975. It features real space equipments from early NASA programs, including a prototype of the Apollo 15, a dosimeter used by astronaut Neil Armstrong and the Mercury capsule. Visitors are encouraged to experience being an astronaut by sitting inside a command module or docking a satellite.

More interactive space related activities could be found inside the Launch Lab, which is housed inside the Aerospace gallery. The principles of aerodynamics and engineering are thoroughly explored in this section. Visitors can try different folding techniques when folding paper airplanes to discover how they affect its lift and thrust. Try balancing different objects inside giant wind tubes to explore the effect of moving air on objects.

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»More Indoor Exhibits

More Indoor Exhibits


Investigate Health illustrates to the visitors how our everyday activities might affect our overall well-being and health. It aims to educate about basic sanitation and hygiene in a fun, interactive manner. At the hand washing station, visitors can apply gel on their hands and assess how effectively they have washed germs off them using ultraviolet lights. The impact of sunscreens against harmful sunrays is also investigated with an infrared camera.

Be sure to catch the popular crash test demonstration where a dummy is subjected to various car crash stimulations with and without seat belts and booster seats. The experiment aims to highlight the importance of passenger safety. At the Lab, trained volunteers lead kids in various experiments, from exploring about seeds to understanding water surface tension. These experiments change frequently, so be sure to check out the latest schedule.

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»Outdoor exhibits

Outdoor exhibits

The museum uses interactive exhibits to connect people, animals and plants in a natural, outdoor setting that truly combines learning with play. A long-time local favorite would be the Dinosaur Trail that has been around since the 1970s. The walking trail features a dozen life-size models of dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous period, footprints and a fossil-dig site. Visit domestic animals such as including donkeys, pigs and alpacas in The Farmyard, or catch a 10-minute train ride through the nature park. Here are three highlights that you will want to catch.

Explore the Wild

Explore the Wild is a six-acre wet woodland habitat built into an old quarry. The area houses three different types of live animals - red wolves, lemurs and American black bears. In particular, the red wolves living in the museum are part of a countrywide conservation plan to ensure that these rare animals are protected from extinction.

Landscaping efforts have been put into designing these exhibits so that they resemble the animal’s natural habitats. For instance, the red wolf exhibit features a pool with waterfall, covered wolf den and rock quarry wall to create spaces for the animals to take shelter and exercise. Visitors can observe these animals at a distance from an observation deck or enjoy close up views via visitor-controlled zoom cameras.

More animals are located in the indoor Carolina Wildlife exhibit, which features species that are native to North Carolina, including the woodchuck, striped skunk and alligator. Learn more about the multiple ways in which they have evolved to adapt and thrive in the local environment.

Catch the Wind

Catch the Wind is a large-scale interactive exhibit focused on understanding wind power and the ways plants and animals harness it. Most notably, the area features a large sailboat pond and water table where visitors can maneuver remote-controlled boats with a variety of sail designs. Through play, visitors are encouraged to discover how different sail designs affect movement, the effects of air currents and sail engineering. At the Seed Tower, observe how seeds move with the air and travel long distances as visitors hurl giant seed models into the air.

Into the Mist also is in the same area and lets guests further explore concepts about wind and water. Visitors can run through large dome-like structure that sprays mist while observing how wind affects the direction and intensity of the fog. Kids can also watch how water that is sprinkled by a metallic rain tree above their heads changes the shape of sand they are playing in.

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»Gateway Park and Hideaway Woods

Gateway Park and Hideaway Woods


As part of the museum’s commitment to nature play, Gateway Park and Hideaway Woods are outdoor nature exhibits that provide opportunities for kids and adults to flex their bodies and expand their observation skills and imagination.

Gateway Park is located right outside the main building, and acts as a transitional point from indoors to outdoors. Although it is a spot intended for families to gather and rest, it is also a simple play area to keep the kids occupied and stimulated. Some activities include a large sand area, ropewalks and climbing webs.

Hideaway Woods is an extensive play area that spans over two acres and is up to 20-feet above ground. The centerpiece is a tree house village made of eight units that are connected by rope bridges, ladders, cargo nets and slides. It is an expansive structure to ensure that there is ample room for visitors to flex their bodies and imagination.

To cater to visitors aged 6 years old and younger, there is a Young Explorers section featuring a similar tree house except it is smaller and lower to the ground. Nearby, there is also a flowing stream for kids to splash and wade in water. Furthermore, groups of friends can also play a game of hide-and-seek among a unique sculpture made entirely out of sweet gum and red maple saplings.

433 W Murray Ave, Durham, NC 27704, website, Phone: 919-220-5429

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Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina