About Us | Our History
Over sixty years ago a group of dedicated volunteers began Durham, North
Carolina’s first trail-side nature center. Known as the “Children’s
Museum,” the center flourished, and soon a collection began with
dinosaur fossils and minerals. The fever of space exploration and
astronauts who trained in Chapel Hill motivated the search for an
aerospace exhibit. A kind soul rented a truck to haul the now-famous
landmark Mercury Redstone rocket from Alabama to its new home on Murray
Avenue in Durham to grace the exterior of a burgeoning indoor/outdoor
Name change in the 1970s
The 1970’s marked a period of expansion that included a name change to the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science and outdoor exhibits for large animals. Aerospace and Geology exhibits were expanded and the Ellerbe Creek Railway was installed. The County of Durham appropriated operating funding for the first time in 1973 and the NC General Assembly provided capital support for facility improvements.
Museum Master Plan: 1986
In 1986, a comprehensive Master Plan was devised introducing a second major period of growth in the Museum’s history. First, construction of an indoor Nature Center featuring live North Carolina animals was completed. In 1991 the Museum completed its Mercury Meeting Room, temporary exhibit gallery, expanded lobby and gift shop, new discovery rooms and an additional 6,000 square feet of exhibit space. 1993 marked the completion of the Science and Technology Wing including a range of programs in the natural and physical sciences making the Museum one of the premier centers of informal science in the country.
BioQuest: Interactive Science Experience
Future thinking of how the Museum might expand using its 84-acre campus emphasized expansion of natural science learning opportunities. Strategic plans resulted in the development of a two-phase interactive science experience dubbed BioQuest, one that the National Science Foundation proclaimed would become a “national model,” the first science center expansion linking people with plants, animals and interactive exhibits in the out-of-doors.
Phase One – Magic Wings Butterfly House
Phase One began with the now beloved Magic Wings Butterfly House, an outstanding three-story tropical conservatory that is regarded as one of the nation’s finest. Bringing visitors into intimate contact with exotic butterflies in a tropical indoor environment, the facility also supports over 200 tropical plant varieties. One of the largest museum butterfly houses in the Southeastern U.S., the 5,000-square-foot tropical conservatory is encased with an additional 13,000 square feet of learning labs and the Bayer CropScience Insectarium, which officially opened in March 2000.
Phase Two – Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind and Dinosaur Trail
Phase Two of the BioQuest expansion plan includes Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, and the return of the Museum’s popular Dinosaur Trail. The National Science Foundation validated the quality of this one-of-a-kind outdoor learning experience with a $2 million grant. The people of Durham County offered resounding support for this project with over $11 million in bond funding. Explore the Wild opened in 2006, and Catch the Wind opened in 2007. The new Dinosaur Trail opened in 2009, thanks to private support of over $800,000 to supplement the $675,000 secured in Durham County bond funds.