The Burke Museum is moving its collection, including seldom-seen objects, to its new $99 million home, which is scheduled to open in the fall.
From a simple distance point of view, it’s a quick jaunt between the loading docks of the old Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and the new one — maybe 400 feet, give or take a few steps.
If you were running from one to the other in your underwear during a snowstorm on a dare, you’d head down the ramp from the old loading dock, south along the backside of that building, make a U-turn at a gap in the fence, run north up the backside of the new building, hang a quick left, then burst through the door.
You’d get goose bumps, but nothing life-threatening.
If, on the other hand, you’d walked the same path in a recent procession of Burke staff members, hand-carrying 2,000-year-old glass from Cyprus (shuffling very slowly, the soles of everyone’s shoes barely leaving the ground, eyes cast downward while a spotter hollered out nearby rocks and other stumbling hazards), or carefully rolled a cart of 66-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex bones, the walk would seem much longer — and more stressful.
“We may need a forklift for our T. rex skull,” Meredith Riven, the Burke’s collections manager of vertebrate paleontology, said during a recent visit to the museum. “We know it rolls well on the rack it’s on — the only concern is controlling it. The move from the old building to the new one is slightly downhill, which is good, but we don’t want anyone to get run over by a dinosaur.”
The $99 million “new Burke” (owned by Washington state, located on the University of Washington campus, mostly paid for by state funds and private donations) broke ground in May 2016. The dozens of shovel-wielders posing for PR photos included scientists, state senators, tribal leaders and a pack of kids with red toy scoopers. It plans to open sometime this fall.
Meanwhile, the museum had roughly 16 million objects to shepherd from its old vaults to the new home.
The new building, designed by Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig (a firm known for its work with art museums and other precious collections), ran with the Burke’s motto “museum inside-out”: more transparency, allowing visitors to stroll past wall-sized windows and peep at the millions of objects not on official display, plus 12 labs where museum workers will tend to fossils and other specimens.
“Now probably less than 1 percent of the collection is visible to the public at any given time,” Kathy Dougherty, a manager of the Burke’s ethnography and archaeology collection, said as she walked through the old Burke’s concrete, bunkerlike storage rooms. The move provided a behind-the-scenes look at some of the Burke’s rarely seen objects. (None can be seen by the public now, but the museum estimates that once it reopens, visitors will be able to glimpse two-thirds of its total holdings on any given day.)
“Up there,” she said, gesturing to a loft, “we’ve got dog sleds, a birch-bark canoe, so many things.” A gorgeously striking, carved-wood transformation mask of a sculpin (a spiny, bottom-dwelling fish) used in Kwakwaka’wakw dances rested on a board, nestled among cardboard boxes, waiting to be carried to a fresh home.
A recent tour of the old and new shelves (plus a visit to some semisecret storage areas in other campus buildings) was like a childhood, after-hours-at-the-museum fantasy. Among the objects seen: a surprisingly delicate-looking Hmong hunting rifle from Vietnam; shiny, psychedelic-patterned cowry shells (malacologist Melissa Frey called them “the eye candy of the shell collection”); iridescent blue butterflies (the Burke has the world’s largest collection of Washington state butterflies, plus specimens from around the globe); a gray whale skull; a sperm whale skull; an exquisite Haida bowl made by steaming open the horn of a mountain sheep, so translucent it seemed to glow; long festival rockets from Laos, one of which required six people to carry it from the old vault to the new building.
In the ethnology collection, recent museology graduate Alaria Longstaff gingerly picked up a sword scabbard from the Filipino island Mindanao: two pieces of wood lashed together with fiber so, in the heat of hand-to-hand combat, a sword could slice directly through it, shaving off the potentially fatal microseconds required to yank a sword out of a more durable, European-style scabbard. “This,” she said admiringly, “is a brilliant offensive innovation.”
The collections had distinct scents: the Japanese area, with its old wood masks, smelled like an antique shop; the baskets smelled like sweet grass.
When the new museum opens, visitors will be allowed to see more of the Burke’s millions of objects — a benefit to the museum, as well as the public. They may see things that aren’t on heavy rotation in display cases, and point out details even the Burke didn’t know: new information about where an object came from; or who made it; or whether something that drifted into the collection half a century ago is, in fact, culturally sensitive and should face east, or remain hidden, or only be touched by men (such as some whaling harpoons) or women (such as drinking tubes associated with female puberty ceremonies), or even be repatriated.
The museum has returned some objects over the years, said tribal cultural liaison Polly Olsen (Yakama). It has been allowed to retain others that should only be seen and studied by select visitors from relevant cultural groups. Some paintings of sacred dances, for example, stay in storage covered by shrouds to keep them away from uninitiated eyes.
“Not all information is available to everyone,” Olsen said, explaining that the faddishness for Native American practices can sometimes be a cultural-appropriation hazard. She declined to give specific details about objects in the collection, but used the general example of indigenous ceremonial food, like lamprey, a jawless fish. “If people had access to our knowledge of traditional foods, they would then commercialize it and overharvest when these foods are for our practices. Our living practices are primary. People gain a little bit of knowledge and then they think they own it, without asking for permission or understanding from the tribes.”
That care about who gets to examine what can precipitate long-term benefits.
Ethnology collections manager Rebecca Andrews recalled a visit several years ago, when a local woman and her son came to see some of her grandfather’s wood carvings. “She asked if her son could hold his great-grandfather’s carvings, so of course we said yes,” Andrews said. “The mother was crying, taking photos.”
Two years ago, Andrews got a call from the boy, now a young man. “He said: ‘You probably don’t remember me, but I’m the boy who came to see his great-grandfather’s carvings. Now I’m a carver.’ ” She smiled at the memory: “And that is what we do.”
Like any big relocation project, the Burke move exhumed a few surprises: a papier-mâché Dia de los Muertos statue that had been hiding on an upper shelf, some spears, stone pestles from Klickitat County, a box full of fossilized crinoids (flowery marine animals commonly called “sea lilies”), a staggeringly comprehensive collection of dogwinkle (a kind of sea snail) shells, a model of an archaeopteryx (a roughly raven-sized dinosaur with wings) wearing a tiny sweater.
Now it stands prominently, frozen in midstride, on a laboratory shelf in the new Burke. (“An archaeopteryx is supposed to have feathers,” said Ruth Martin, a paleontology research associate who had been working near a collection of slides of plankton microfossils. “I guess it was cold, so somebody knitted it a sweater!”)
Every object in the move, including office supplies like file folders and pencils, needed to go through quarantine to make sure museum-ravaging bugs (silverfish, book lice, others) didn’t hitch a ride and keep chewing their way through old papers, leather, fur and baskets. Near the loading dock of the museum, some shipping-container-sized freezers hummed away, annihilating tiny insects.
Up a few flights of stairs in the new museum, Jeff Bradley — the highly energetic mammalogy collections manager, wearing a white hard hat — kept his favorite surprises to himself.
“The coolest thing I found? I don’t want to admit it,” he said. “Mostly evidence of my co-workers from decades ago — someone had been sitting at a desk, smoking while working on specimens, and used one of the shells for an ashtray! They should give it a label: ‘archaeological tool used by museum employee 30 years ago.’ ”
Mostly, Bradley said, the chaos of the move tended to make objects — the more contemporary ones — vanish. “I’ve had to stash some computer equipment,” he said with a sly grin. “When it comes to ornithology, birds aren’t the only ones who like to disappear mice. You know what I’m saying?”