Durham museum plans major expansion

Feb. 25, 2014 @ 05:32 PM

Tree houses, a waterfall and a digger pit with excavators will be part of a major, $3.9 million expansion at Durham’s Museum of Life + Science announced Tuesday.

The project, to be built over the next two years, will add two outdoor learning areas on the museum’s campus on Murray Avenue, off Duke Street in northern Durham.

Plans call for a 2-acre, nature-based play area called Hideaway Woods, to open in summer 2015. The second phase will be called Earth Moves, an interactive approach to Earth sciences. It’s set to open in 2016.

“We are creating a one-of-a-kind place that encourages children’s playful exploration of nature, physical activity, and keeps alive a child’s sense of wonder,” Barry Van Deman, museum president and CEO, said in a press release. “We believe children and their parents should have a safe, natural, and wonder-filled place to come where they are free to explore, climb, crawl and use their imaginations.”

Hideaway Woods will be in the wooded area encircled by the museum’s Ellerbe Creek Railway tracks. It will feature outdoor experiences designed to encourage movement, exploration and skill development.

Highlights include tree-house villages suspended 15 to 20 feet off the ground. Children will climb high among the trees, crisscross between tree houses on suspended bridges and see nature from a different viewpoint.

Another set of structures six to eight feet off the ground and a natural playground of ramps, elevated platforms and swinging bridges will be available for younger explorers or others who choose to stay closer to the ground.

Other features include:

- Living twig and sapling sculptures designed by artist Patrick Dougherty for hands-on, imaginative play. The main body of the area will be designed over a mulch base that is playground-approved and complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act so children of all ages and abilities can enjoy it.

- Play space for the museum’s youngest visitors – 18 months to age 5 – with activities ranging from building exercises to low-log steppers for climbing. The area is designed to be increasingly challenging while encouraging children to practice and improve.

The expansion’s second phase, Earth Moves, “will immerse visitors in Earth sciences where [they] experience how the Earth moves by natural forces and human interaction,” according to the museum’s release. It will be across from the Into the Mist exhibit in the Catch the Wind area of the museum’s outdoor campus.

Highlights include:

- A large-scale digger pit with full-size excavators, modified for safe operation by families and children. Visitors can experience the physics of moving massive amounts of earth with simple machines.

- An earthquake platform that challenges visitors to build structures that can survive simulated seismic activity. Visitors will use foam blocks to create “buildings” on a platform to experience what a tremor would feel like while controlling the quake’s intensity.

- A free-standing waterfall, which showcases the physical properties of water and shows how groundwater flows into an aquifer.

Durham resident Ginny Ramirez-Deltoro, who brought her 2-year-old son to the museum Tuesday, called the expansion plans exciting.

“Play is an important part of development, and I think the museum directors and the folks who work here have a good sense of what will promote that kind of learning and curiosity,” she said. “I’m eager to see how it all turns out. My son loves it here. I think it feels like home to him.”

Gary Crumpler of Durham, who brings his 5-year-old son to the museum about once a month, said he hopes adults also get to climb the tree houses and use the excavation equipment.

“And I’d like to see how they’ll build the waterfall,” he said. “If they could film that and put it on the website, that would be awesome.”

Stephen Presnell, who was enjoying the exhibits Tuesday with his 3-year-old grandson, said the expansion will boost the museum’s draw.

“The museum does an excellent job with whatever they do,” he said. “It’s my go-to place.”

Durham County Commissioners so far have approved a lead gift of $500,000 for the expansion’s fundraising campaign. The museum’s board has promised 10 percent of the total.

For information, visit the museum’s website at www.lifeandscience.org.