THE LANDSCAPE AROUND the New Burke Museum is designed to honor a storytelling culture rooted in history and the ground beneath our feet.
“The past is still living in this landscape,” says Shannon Nichol, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, the local landscape architecture firm responsible for connecting the museum’s exhibits with the natural world.
Designed by Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig, the new building is a transparent structure. Large windows flood soaring exhibit spaces with natural light, introducing views of the all-native plantings surrounding the exterior. It’s all part of the Burke’s agenda to turn the museum experience inside out, creating connections and continuity between indoor and out, past and present, science and curiosity.
The newly installed landscape features plants from two iconic Washington ecosystems: a Douglas-fir forest and a camas prairie. Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center in Carnation has been partnering with GGN and the New Burke since 2015. That’s when Oxbow received the plant list and began collecting seed for the project, sourced from their property and others in the Snoqualmie Valley, as well as from a remnant prairie on private land on Dinner Island in the San Juan Islands — another connection established between native wildlands and our urban environment.
With the exception of small native sedums, all of the approximately 75,000 plants Oxbow produced for the project were grown from seed. According to Bridget McNassar, Oxbow’s native plant nursery manager, “We’ve been growing these plants for almost four years. Some of the plants, camas especially, are incredibly slow growing from seed.”
Practically speaking, planting beds filled with a matrix of native forbs, bulbs and grasses filter stormwater. Once they grow in, tall trees and understory shrubs will envelop the site on all sides, providing a buffer against traffic on this busy northwest corner of the University of Washington campus and enclosing the Burke Yard, a new multipurpose outdoor plaza gathering space/parking lot just off the museum.
But beyond its ecological function, each plant in the Burke landscape has an offering to native people and is a part of a cultural heritage where the land is a respected partner. Initially, interpretive signage will enhance visitors’ experiences. In addition to English, signs will include botanical and tribal or cultural translations.
But introducing the plants is only the beginning. Polly Olsen, the Burke’s tribal liaison, is consulting with tribes throughout the state to develop future programming integrating indigenous knowledge to demonstrate how native plants were once tended, foraged and respectfully harvested for cooking and ceremonial practices. “We have a responsibility to steward these plants and their nutrients,” Olsen says.
The Camas Terrace, a paved gathering space with public seating at the museum’s entrance, promises to be a very special part of the Burke’s new landscape. Broad steps that intersect with an adjacent planting bed generously planted with Camassia quamash and C. leichtilinii will provide a front-row seat for the spring display when showy stalks of blue, star-shaped flowers appear. Camas bulbs were one of the most important food crops for Coast Salish Peoples, who tended the plants for years until they were big enough to harvest.
The landscape at the New Burke is about cultivating a relationship with native plants and, like the indoor exhibits, it encourages us to explore our region’s rich history. For information about hours, programming and plant lists, visit burkemuseum.org.