Plan Your Trip to the Museum of Life and Science
Discover the scientist in you with a visit to Durham's popular museum.
Posted By Chika Gujarathi
In 1946, a group of volunteers created a small trail-side nature center at C-36 Lavender Street off Durham’s West Club Boulevard to offer storytimes, a preschool, and hands-on nature discovery opportunities to the community. Now, 75 years later, the Museum of Life and Science stands amidst a sprawling 84 acres on Murray Avenue; it seems unfathomable to imagine such humble beginnings for an institution synonymous with childhood in Durham and the entire Triangle.
Located about five miles from downtown Durham, the Museum of Life and Science has grown exponentially in the past few decades. With over 35 indoor and outdoor exhibits for all ages, including a zoo, an aquarium, an aerospace museum, a science lab, a nature preserve, a conservatory, an old-time railway, the museum has upheld its commitment to spread a sense of wonder, awe, and critical thinking through play and exploration. Honored as the “National Model” by the National Science Foundation, we are proud to have the Museum of Life and Science as a steady part of Durham’s vibrant and ever-evolving community.
Location: 433 W. Murray Ave, Durham, NC 27704
All visitors are welcomed through the main building entrance. Once inside, museum members and pre-purchased ticket holders can walk left to check-in or walk straight to the front desk to purchase admission tickets.
Hours: The museum is open every Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Museum members can gain access an hour early at 9 a.m.
Closed on Mondays. Closed on New Year’s Day, Presidents Day, Indigenous People’s Day/Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Admission: General – $23; Seniors (Ages 65+) – $21; Children (Ages 3-12) – $18; Children (Ages 2 and under) – Free; U.S. Military (with ID) – $21; Members – Free.
*Group Pricing is available and must be requested in advance via an online form.
*On Durham Community Days, the museum provides free entrance to all Durham County residents with current proof of residence. All adults must have Durham residency to get in free; each adult can bring up to five children. A current listing of Durham Community Days can be found on the museum’s ticketing webpage.
Bathrooms: Everyone is welcome to use the restroom they feel comfortable using. Changing tables are available in all restrooms. The main building offers three restrooms spread across both floors including one at the main entrance. The main building also has three comfortable Caregiver Areas for nursing parents or families who need to take a break. The Butterfly House has an additional restroom and Caregiver Area. Four more restrooms are thoughtfully spread throughout the outdoor exhibits.
Parking: Free car parking is available on both sides of Murray Avenue. A covered three-story parking deck, also free and open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., is located on the south side, across the street from the museum. For active families who choose to bike to the museum, there are multiple racks that accommodate up to 15 bicycles located on the front entry plaza. Two electric car chargers are also located in the main lot; however, they might be unavailable during any ongoing construction.
Food: Sprout Cafe and Elements Coffee Bar are the two food venues available to guests. Located by the outdoor exhibits, Sprout Café provides breakfast, lunch, and snack options, with indoor and outdoor seating. Elements Coffee Bar on the first floor of the main building offers hot and cold beverages, bakery items, and snacks.
Light snacks for children are allowed on campus as long as they are enjoyed responsibly in designated areas. For the safety of the animals, disposable straws are not allowed (so leave that juice box behind).
Other outside foods, coolers, and picnics are allowed only in the Picnic Dome located by the parking deck across the entrance.
Strollers and Wheelchairs: Being accessible for all is one of the museum’s highest priorities. As such, the entire campus – indoor and out – is easily navigable via strollers and wheelchairs. Additionally, five manual wheelchairs are available on loan for free on a first-come first-serve basis. Strollers are also available for rent (single $2/day, double $4/day) on a first-come first-serve basis.
Wi-Fi: Free Wi-Fi is available in the main building, the Butterfly House, and Bayer Insectarium.
COVID-19 Update: Like many institutions, the museum was closed briefly for the COVID-19 pandemic. It has since reopened with new and improved safety protocols that include rearranged exhibits with more space and circulation, high-efficiency air filters, touch-free transactions and interfaces, installation of sneeze guards, and much more. However, daily programs remain suspended temporarily until further notice. In line with the current North Carolina and Durham County guidelines, masks are optional (as of May 2022).
Pro tip: Make sure to pack sunblock, hats, and a change of clothes to make play in outdoor exhibits safe, fun, and fuss free.
Let the Adventure Begin
Simply put, it’s almost impossible to enjoy everything that the museum offers in one visit. The best thing to do is to thoroughly review the museum campus map and exhibits information online before your arrival and seek out exhibits that your particular brood might enjoy the most on that particular day. For out-of-town visitors who might not have an opportunity to revisit the museum as frequently or easily, the best advice is to first enjoy the exhibits that might not be offered in your hometown’s children’s museums, and then plan to return for another adventure.
Current Indoor Exhibits: Aerospace, Butterfly House, Carolina WildLife, Flip It Fold It Figure It Out, Insectorium, Investigate Health, Launch Lab, Math Movers, Play To Learn, Tinker Lab, Weather
Current Outdoor Exhibits: Catch the Wind, Dinosaur Trail, Earth Moves, Explore the Wild: Black Bears, Lemurs, Tortoises, Red Wolves, Gateway Park, Hideaway Woods, Into the Mist, Sound Garden, The Farmyard, The Train, Wander Away.
Can’t Miss Exhibits
No words can do justice to the beauty and satisfaction of Hideaway Woods. You just have to come and experience it for yourself. A two-acre, nature discovery environment, which opened in 2015, Hideaway Woods features treehouses, rope bridges, ladders and slides, a flowing streambed, nature-based imaginative play area, fenced-in area for younger explorers, dedicated stroller parking and seating. and more. With some structures up to 20 feet off the ground, it offers a unique perspective of the surroundings no matter the season.
The Museum's Dinosaur Trail, which first opened in 1967 by then curator Richard Wescott who hand sculpted the giant models in plaster, has since been reimagined and updated to keep up with science and new discoveries. It takes you back to the late Cretaceous period with an up-close look at over a dozen life-sized dinosaurs. The Fossil Dig site on the trail is filled with dirt trucked from Eastern North Carolina that is rich in marine fossils. Grab a shovel and start digging because you may just take home a fossil that is 5 million to 23 million years old.
Speaking of dinosaurs, make sure to find Bronto, the 30-foot brontosaurus hidden in the trees of the West Ellerbee Creek Trail across the street from the museum.
If getting the kids to leave the Butterfly House becomes a challenge, just mention Earth Moves. This outdoor exhibit is all about how mountains rise, rocks turn to sand, and water reshapes the planet. There is a sandstone cave formation, a 20-foot waterfall, and a place to experiment with sand, stones, and rolling water to learn about the rock cycle.
This 35-foot tall glass conservatory called Magic Wings is one of the largest on the East Coast. It houses sustainably farmed butterflies from across the globe in a tropical rainforest environment which includes over 200 species of plants. Visitors can get ID guides and try to spot as many as possible, some from as far as East Asia. Truth be told, it feels like the quickest escape to a tropical vacation without ever leaving the city. Magic Wings is also home to the Bayer Insectarium, featuring a rare assortment of exotic insects and invertebrates from around the globe.
The Ellerbe Creek Railway offers a 10-minute ride through the museum park on a scale replica of C.P. Huntington locomotive. Two laps around the track pass through nature and creative art installations. The train runs daily (weather permitting) beginning at 10 a.m. and ending at 4 p.m. Train rides cost $4 per person for members and $5.50 per person for the general public. Children two and under ride free on an adult’s lap. Tickets are only available daily on a first-come, first-served basis at the front desk. The train offers an accessible ramp and railcar for one wheelchair at a time.
Apollo era space artifacts such as astronaut’s space suits, the actual Mercury capsule, a prototype of the Apollo 15 Lunar Lander, and a real moon rock are just some of the things you will find in the Aerospace gallery (it boasts the largest collections of Apollo-era artifacts in the state along with items from loan from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., and NASA’s Langley Research Center). Don’t forget to spot your house at the satellite mapping table.
All exhibits at the museum are designed for kids of all ages and seemingly morph into something new and different with every visit. It’s precisely this unbound freedom of imagination and play that has weaved the Museum of Life and Science into the fabric of life in Durham.