DURHAM — The $3.9 million expansion underway at the Museum of Life and Science is designed to give kids a hands-on look at how wind, water and rock interact.
There are two phases to the expansion: the $2 million Hideaway Woods, which includes a treehouse village, and the $1.9 million Earth Moves, which will feature a series of front-end excavators that will allow children to safely lift dirt out of a pit.
Work has started on 2-acre Hideaway Woods, which is expected to open in the summer of 2015.
Julie Rigby, vice president for external relations for the museum, said the treehouse village will be “Ewok Village meets the Swiss Family Robinson.”
Visitors will be able to safely climb 15 to 20 feet off the ground among the trees. They will cross from treehouse to treehouse on suspended bridges. An additional set of structures will be set 6 to 8 feet off the ground for younger children.
Another highlight will be the stream and dam with clean, recirculated water. Visitors can wade right in and play.
The entrance to the new exhibit will be a tunnel under the train tracks that run through the grounds of the museum.
At the end of the tunnel will be a natural jungle gym made with big stumps hauled in from around the county.
Also in Hideaway Woods will be artist Patrick Bowers’ “Branches and Bowers,” a series of twig and sapling sculptures where children can play hide-and-seek.
“This is the biggest and best playscape of its kind in the region,” Rigby said of Hideaway Woods.
Earth Moves is to be built on a 1-acre space on the museum grounds and is expected to open in 2016.
In addition to the digging pit with working excavators held in place by governors, highlights of this phase will include a 15-foot high sand dune that children can climb and play on, an earthquake platform where foam blocks will simulate buildings on a platform that can be triggered to move.
Also, visitors will able to blast water at a formation of earth and rock to simulate erosion and mini-landslides.
With earth science being taught at all grade levels now, Rigby said, the Earth Moves exhibit will provide the perfect hands-on complement to the curriculum.
With this new expansion, Rigby said, the museum hopes to follow up on the success of the Catch the Wind exhibit, which opened in 2007.
The museum has $1.9 million in commitments for the expansion, including $500,000 contributed by the Durham County Board of Commissioners. Also, members of the museum’s board have pledged more than $350,000.
Also important, Rigby said, are smaller donations by members who have been calling in to pledge. A donation of $5,000 will get the donor’s name on the donor wall.
This is the most ambitious expansion in the museum’s history, Rigby said, with the museum attempting to raise three times more than for any other expansion.
Construction started in early February, with weather causing delays, but workers have been able to get back on schedule recently.
It was important to get started during the museum’s slow season, Rigby said, because of the need to shut down the train to build the tunnel under it and to get hardware into the trees in time for the trees to heal before next year’s opening.
Also coming soon to the museum is a sustainable garden.
And if the museum can find a funder, Rigby said, there’s a plan to develop a floating wetland walkway in the 2.5 wetland already on the museum’s grounds.
Rigby said that in listening to members and visitors, museum leadership found a desire for more outdoor play areas, as opposed to more development indoors.
She sees it as a reflection of the times, when it is harder for parents to find opportunities for their children to play outdoors.