It’s had a few different names over the years, but what we now call the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is 134 years old — and for most of those years, it’s been serially looking for a bigger home.
From its origins as a back-room museum in the downtown house of Seattle co-founder Arthur A. Denny, then through various University of Washington properties, the Burke (which picked up that name in 1962) kept running into the same problems for its ever-growing collection of new bugs, old bones, woven baskets and other precious items: rot-festering air, hungry insects, not enough space.
Those days are over — for the foreseeable future.
On Saturday, Oct. 12, 40 months after it broke ground in May 2016, the museum will open the newest “new Burke,” a $99 million facility designed by architectural firm Olson Kundig with a stark, rustic-modern exterior where vertical planks of natural wood meet dark glass. It’s a fitting aesthetic for an institution that wants to show the public its marriage of the ancient (fossils, artifacts) and the contemporary (living cultures, high-tech labs).
This Burke, director Julie K. Stein says, isn’t just a new museum. It’s a new breed of museum, imagined and designed with the incantation “inside-out.”
Inside, the new Burke feels true to the mission of transparency, transparency, transparency: spacious, high-ceilinged, elevated walkways, strategic viewpoints so visitors can sense the breadth of the building, glass walls to reveal the heretofore hidden storage vaults, integrated exhibit layout (by Evidence Design) that emphasizes transitions and conversations between places and times, rather than the traditional “culture-in-a-box” or “geologic-epoch-on-a-poster” approach.
The “Culture Is Living” gallery, for example, doesn’t segment objects by geography but by theme. Its “water” area shows paddles from around the world (Inupiaq from Alaska, Maori from Weno Island) and global acts of water protest (Tongans joining hundreds of boats in 2014 to block a coal port in Australia, 2018 “kayaktivists” swarming toward the Shell oil rig moored in Seattle).
Throughout the building, visitors can stare into windowed laboratories and watch people at work: paleontologists chipping stone away from fossils; a volunteer in the contemporary-cultures lab examining a Guatemalan huipil (a highly detailed, symbolically embroidered blouse); visiting specialists (researchers, artists, tribal members, a few individuals who are all of the above) examining some of the Burke’s 16 million objects.
Architect Tom Kundig said he used “a Swiss cheese strategy,” poking holes all around the building to put what he calls its “-ologies” (ethnology, archaeology, geology) in conversation with one another. “That’s what a museum is supposed to do,” he said. “It’s supposed to pique curiosity, from the research level to the adult to the child — to think.”
Nothing against the latest “old Burke” (1964-2018), which lived just a few steps away on the University of Washington campus — but it, by contrast, was a bit of a cinderblock.
Paradoxically, the Burke’s vision for a new, open, inside-out museum was born in that cinderblock’s warren of a basement.
Stein became the Burke’s director in 2005 — and gave lots of behind-the-scenes tours. She would usher VIPs across the public area to a secret door in a far corner, down a stairway, past a door with an alarm and into the Burke’s basement.
“There was a world down there they’d never seen before,” Stein said. They’d walk through the archaeology collections area where students and staff were working around tables, taking objects out of vintage paper bags and putting them in newly labeled plastic ones, entering information in databases, looking into microscopes. Down the hall in paleontology, they’d pass huge stacks of bones, people scrutinizing 30-million-year-old shells, visiting scientists from Germany looking at dolphin and whale fossils.
“Usually right about that time they’d say, inevitably using the same words: ‘I had no idea!’ ” Stein said. “Then we’d go on to culture with baskets and masks, the bird collections with all the spread wings — they’d be overwhelmed. They truly thought the only thing the Burke did was in those cases upstairs: objects with labels. When you do this 200, 300 times, you realize the magical thing about the Burke is the thing almost nobody is seeing.”
In 2011, the Burke revived the idea of moving — an idea that had been sleeping fitfully for decades. (When the Burke got its previous building in the 1960s, its decades-long director — anthropologist Erna Gunther — said it was too small. She resigned before it opened.) Stein recalls a consultant, hired to help make the fundraising pitch, asking: “Why don’t you turn the whole museum inside-out? Have the mantra be that the public can see everything: your offices, the loading dock, where the electrical wires are, everything!”
Not everything in the New Burke is visible, but Stein said that whenever they faced a design decision, they tried to put a thumb on the scales of transparency — real transparency, not just a gesture.
Some museums she visited had “public labs” that were really just showrooms where scientists worked in front of the public for a bit — but clearly weren’t primary workspaces.
“The public can distinguish instantly,” Stein said. “Those little bits of human memorabilia, bits of paper, pens and glasses and mouse pads and sticky notes. We want to be authentic.”
Stein and Kundig both said museums across the board, from natural history to art, are trying to transform into more inviting, transparent, democratic institutions. They’re gravitating (or trying to gravitate) toward a different mode of knowledge — not so much the strict, intimidating-halls-of-expertise model but something that includes a bit of crowdsourcing.
Stein gave an example. By the time she arrived at the Burke in 2005, more members of Native American communities were visiting natural-history museums to examine the collections — partially under new encouragement from the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, partially because a new generation of curators and community members pushed for increased collaboration.
In 2015, three members of the Wanapum band of Eastern Washington (including Rex Buck Jr., chair of the Burke’s Native American Advisory Board) heard the Burke had an unusual fishing weight, a woven composite of roots, bark and stones, designed to weigh down hoop nets. They wanted to take a look — and perhaps replicate it.
The Burke’s archaeology folks knew it was a net weight — but until the three Wanapum visitors came, they didn’t know how it worked. “They helped us understand that the style may be unique to the Hanford Reach area and a specialized fishing method,” archaeology-collections manager Laura Phillips said. “The one here will go on display in the ‘Our Material World’ gallery in an exhibit about food.”
The trickiest thing about the Burke’s inside-out shift, Stein said, wasn’t raising the money. The museum exceeded its goal, raising $99 million (55% state money, 33% private gifts, 10% from the University of Washington and other public funds, 3% in-kind gifts), plus $7 million more.
It was getting the staff on board with the idea of working in public.
“People were anxious about it,” Stein said. “What would it mean? What would happen? Would people be knocking on the windows?”
So they tried prototypes — rooms with windows in the old Burke where people would work for a month. The staff, Stein said, were shocked: “They had no idea the public thought what they were doing was interesting!”
All that work in the basement: preparing specimens, looking at microscopes, moving objects from one bag into another. The public was fascinated. One man, Stein said, sat for 20 minutes watching someone enter object after object into a database. Eventually, she asked him what was so interesting.
“He said he couldn’t believe the beautiful technical descriptions of the objects,” Stein said. “He couldn’t wait to see what would happen next!”
New Burke Museum grand-opening weekend, Oct. 12-14; 4300 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle; $22 adults, $20 seniors, $14 non-UW students and youth, free for children 3 and under, and for UW students, faculty and staff; first Thursdays free; burkemuseum.org