Through Their Eyes
Connie Eggers loves seeing families come through the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Eggers is a visitor services specialist at the Burke, part of a rotating team that works at the museum’s front desk. On one occasion, Eggers overheard a young girl promising her mother, as she grabbed her mother’s hand, that she’d hold on so her mom wouldn’t be scared when they went to the museum’s paleontology section. Another time, a woman came in with her daughter because the daughter had a very specific birthday wish.
“All she wanted for her birthday was a membership to the Burke Museum,” Eggers said with a laugh. Of course, the daughter was too young to have a membership in her own name. But still, Eggers said, “it was her membership.”
Earlier this month, Eggers and I met up at the museum, which was in the midst of installing the recently opened “Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest” exhibition, so she could show me the Burke as she sees it. Much like during my August trip to the Frye Art Museum, Eggers provided a perspective I never could have imagined, one that centers visitors having an experience that may last them a lifetime.
Eggers, 65, grew up in Salem, Oregon, and said she really only had one childhood memory of attending a museum — a sixth grade field trip to Portland’s Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
“When I grew up dirt poor, museums were not for me,” said Eggers, who has been with the Burke for seven years now. “Museums were not for my family, they were for people with money.”
Later in life, Eggers attended graduate school in Scotland, receiving a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Glasgow. After returning to the U.S., she volunteered at the Burke and the Museum of History & Industry before fully joining the Burke in 2015.
One of her favorite stories from her time at the Burke is that of a young man who called into the front desk one day, hesitantly asking if the museum might be willing to help him. He and his girlfriend had visited the museum on a holiday trip from Arizona. He was looking for somewhere special to propose to her and wanted the Burke’s help. Eggers said they were in and asked where in the museum he was hoping to propose. When he responded that his girlfriend loved all of them, Eggers said, “OK, then I get to choose.”
“And I chose paleontology,” Eggers said, “because I thought, years from now when they tell the story, how cool is it going to be that he proposed to her in front of the dinosaurs?”
As with a few of Eggers’ fond stories of her time at the museum, she wasn’t scheduled to work the day the couple came in for the proposal, which now included a bouquet, a custom message on a whiteboard and Champagne and photographers at the ready. But she came in anyway.
“Now we’re all Facebook friends,” Eggers smiled.
As we walked around the now 3-year-old building, a $99 million facility housing the 137-year-old organization, Eggers’ excitement peaked when talking about the way the Burke operates and crafts its museum experience. Our first stop was to see the 39-foot Baird’s beaked whale skeleton, one of 10 in U.S. museum collections, that hangs over a staircase near the museum entrance; Eggers could detail every step that brought the whale from the ocean to the museum.
Eggers recalled the days that led to its inclusion in the museum, including how the whale’s remains, after being buried for two years and allowed to decompose, were eventually brought to the museum and lifted on top of the roof. The tricky thing was, the old building would occasionally open the windows during the summer months to allow for ventilation. And sometimes the wind would shift.
“Visitors would go, ‘What’s that?’” Eggers said of days the whale smell wafted in. “And I’d go, ‘Gosh, I don’t know, must be something coming from outside.’ We didn’t want to tell anybody we had whale bones on the roof.”
But these days, as new exhibits join the Burke, visitors are able to see them worked on in glass-encased workrooms. As we strolled through the museum, Eggers stopped to smile or wave at colleagues in these windowed rooms that are part of the museum’s “Inside-Out” efforts. These are the museum’s working labs, where visitors can see the Burke’s staff cleaning and preparing future exhibits and working to maintain the museum’s collections through cataloging and restoration. Eggers said she loves coming by to see what folks are working on on any given day.
“Usually, you go to a museum and you look at the objects and they’re all pretty and they’re all on exhibit and we just go, ‘ta-da!’” Eggers said. “But nobody sees what happens before that. Stuff like this goes on in every museum, but the visitors don’t get to see it.”
In one workroom that sits near the paleontology section, Eggers pointed out a red wheel that she said was lovingly referred to as “the T. rex rotisserie” because the custom-built rotating wheel was originally used when the Burke was working on preparing an over-66-million-year-old T. rex skull for display. The museum didn’t have a table big enough to hold the weight of the skull plus the rock around it, so the rotisserie allowed them to not only work on the skull, but freely rotate it to work on different sections.
“This skull is one of, if not the finest, specimens of a T. rex skull anywhere in the world because it is in beautiful condition,” Eggers said, beaming about her favorite exhibit. “The prep lab in the old building was right next to the main lobby and the front desk where I worked, so I got to see [it worked on] every day.”
As our walk wound down, Eggers pointed to one more skeleton, tucked away in a corner, of a South American terror bird that used to sit in the lobby of the old Burke building. It used to get decorated for Christmas with a Santa hat or festive lights, but now she said it’s not always out. The bird was nicknamed Kevin for its resemblance to the tropical bird in the 2009 Pixar film “Up.” And at one point, Eggers said, Kevin even served as the best man in a Burke manager’s wedding.
“I feel like I have the best job,” said Eggers. “Everybody else has to go to work. I get to come hang out at the museum all day long, and there’s always something new happening.”