Image from the early 1980s of a school group entering the Museum grounds. You can see the campus map and the rocket and picnic dome in the background.

Museum History

A natural beginning

In 1946, a group of dedicated volunteers created Durham, North Carolina’s first trail-side nature center. Known as “The Children’s Museum,” it opened at C-36 Lavender Street, in the city bird sanctuary off West Club Boulevard. The little museum offered a lot to the community in those early days—a preschool, story hour, nature study, and various clubs for children and adults. Its location close to the woods made it an ideal place to explore nature.

Over the next few years, it grew into a new location at 2500 Georgia Avenue and established a small collection with minerals and fossils. Exhibits would later include natural and preserved specimens and some live animals in cages. Visitors participated in birdwatching, plant and insect identification, collecting specimens, and handicrafts.

A woman teaches a group of students, surrounded by natural specimens.

A new home and a new chapter

The 1960s marked a period of growth and change. The Museum secured a long-term lease from the City of Durham for 11.7 acres of woodland on Murray Avenue in 1961. Construction began on the Museum’s main campus (now home to the woodlands classrooms, parking, and the picnic dome). For the next two decades, visitors began their journey here, exploring the Museum’s Prehistory Trail, Reptile House, The Farmyard, Aerospace Center, Geology and Education buildings, and many vehicle displays.

The original entrance of the Museum, shown with a doubledecker school bus.

Bringing prehistory to the present

The Museum made history when the Prehistory Trail opened in 1967. Featuring 11 life-sized models of prehistoric animals—including the Museum’s beloved Brontosaurus—the trail was one of the first outdoor dinosaur exhibits in the southeast. A labor of love for the Museum’s exhibit curator Richard Wescott (who hand sculpted the models from plaster), the trail’s inhabitants were based on the scientific knowledge of the day.

As paleontologists made new discoveries, the trail eventually became scientifically inaccurate. Yet it continued to delight visitors into the 1980s and early 90s, well after scientists declared the Brontosaurus wasn’t a real dinosaur. In 1996, Hurricane Fran left the trail mostly impassable, but the Bronto can still be seen today.

During the 1990s, the Museum focused on expansion north of Murray Avenue that included the main building and outdoor science park. As part of these plans, the Museum relocated and redeveloped this popular prehistoric exhibit. The current Dinosaur Trail offers updated models and information about the late Cretaceous Period and a fossil dig where budding paleontologists can dig in and uncover real fossils.

Two children stand under a large brontosaurus sculpture.

A new name and exhibits

In the early 1970s, the Museum changed its name to the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science and established many of the experiences visitors still enjoy today. A capital expansion helped fund outdoor exhibits for large animals, expanded Aerospace and Geology exhibits, and the installation of the Ellerbe Creek Railway. The first version of the Museum’s popular railway opened in 1977, featuring a C.P. Huntington replica train and a mile-long track, complete with a gold spike. It was during this period the Museum leased a 50-acre tract on the north side of Murray Avenue, which would ultimately be the home of the current Museum campus.

The Museum's replica train ride, circa 1977.

Space, the new frontier

North Carolina has played an important role in the space program since the 1960s, acting as a training site for Gemini and Apollo astronauts. During the heyday of the race to space, Granville County native James Edwin Webb oversaw NASA as it sent the first Americans into orbit.

Webb was instrumental in the Museum’s early days, too. He helped Museum curators acquire many of the pieces that would fill the Museum’s first Aerospace Exhibit Center—which opened in 1975 (The geodesic dome that housed the exhibit is now a popular picnic area). The F.G. Hall Memorial Aerospace Pavilion featured artifacts from the US Space Program, such as the original Apollo 4 spacecraft and launch escape tower, and a high-altitude chamber donated by Duke University. At the time of its construction, the Museum was the only of its size to have a contract with the Smithsonian Institution and its aerospace collection helped put the Museum on the map.

Today, the Museum still displays an impressive collection of early-era space artifacts in its Aerospace gallery. In addition to a Lunar Lander replica, the Museum also boasts the spacecraft that carried Enos the chimpanzee into space in 1961. Guests can test principles of flight and their aerospace engineering skills in Launch Lab. And many young visitors know they’ve arrived at the Museum when they spot the Mercury Redstone Rocket replica standing on Murray Avenue.

An overhead view of the Aerospace gallery in the 1970s featuring a lunar scene and a giant red and white parachute.

New growth and a master plan

In the 1980s, the Museum entered a second period of major growth. The education department expanded its outreach with Durham public schools and added its first intensive schedule of summer camps. The exhibits department established a “hands-on” philosophy, creating new interactive exhibits that departed from earlier, more traditional, collections and dioramas. In 1986, the Museum marked its 40th anniversary by adopting a comprehensive master plan. The next decade would see the development of much of today’s main building, including an auditorium and meeting room, new exhibit spaces like Carolina Wildlife and Weather, and the museum store. By the completion of the Science and Technology wing in 1993, the Museum’s range of programs and experiences in the natural and physical sciences had made it the one of the premier centers of informal science in the country.

Four children observe a skunk in its habitat in Carolina Wildlife.

Looking beyond—and outdoors

With the main building complete, the Museum turned its sights toward developing the rest of its northside campus. In 1992, the Museum adopted another master plan, with the goal of creating hands-on experiences outdoors that would rival the quality and uniqueness of the indoor exhibits it had pioneered. Known as Bioquest, the project included plans for expanded animal exhibits, a butterfly house, and an updated dinosaur trail. The National Science Foundation (NSF) proclaimed it a “national model” for how science centers can link people with plants, animals, and interactive exhibits out-of-doors. As a new century dawned, the Museum opened Magic Wings Butterfly House. Over the next ten years, Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, and the new Dinosaur Trail would follow, building off a $2 million NSF grant, $800,000 in private support, and a generous $11 million in bond funding from the people of Durham county.

Museum guests are on a blue ride with white wings, called an Ornithopter.

On the wing

When it opened, Magic Wings Butterfly House was one of the largest museum butterfly houses in the southeastern United States. The three story, 5,000-square-foot conservatory hosts more than 200 tropical plant varieties and an array of exotic butterflies. Bayer Insectarium, completed in March 2000, provides visitors with an up-close look at invertebrates from around the world. Lepidoptera Learning Lab, on the second floor, gave the Museum additional space for hands-on labs, camps, and birthday parties.

At the time, Magic Wings marked a considerable expansion in the Museum’s exhibit footprint and was an example of the Museum’s commitment to immersive, hands-on experiences. Today, it’s still considered one of the nation’s finest butterfly houses.

A view of the full butterfly house building in 2000.

A return to its roots

As the Museum expanded its outdoor offerings, it adopted nature play as a core part of its educational philosophy. In 2012, Into the Mist opened, introducing visitors to a rolling playscape of tunnels and misters where they could explore science through play. A new $3.9 million fundraising campaign called Climbing Higher would further support this important work. In 2015, the Museum opened Hideaway Woods, a 2.5-acre natural space featuring a treehouse village, an accessible streamed, and tree climbers. Here, visitors build confidence climbing, take risks, and spend time in nature. Earth Moves followed in 2019. Featuring a cave formation made from sandstone, a 20-foot waterfall, and a giant erosion steam, the Museum’s newest exhibit lets visitors experiment with sand, stone, and rolling water.

The little trail-side nature museum has blossomed into a community hub for science exploration, conservation, and nature play. As the Museum grows, it creates environments for nature and science learning that will engage children and families for generations to come.

Girl plays with rocks in stream of Earth Moves