Routinely, in the middle of the night, a special alarm awakens Burke Museum genetics expert Sharon Birks at home, warning her that one of the museum’s freezers has malfunctioned — putting one of the world’s largest collections of genetic bird tissue at risk.
Curator Rebecca Andrews has walked by storage shelves filled with the Burke’s thousands of priceless Northwest Coast native baskets, and heard them crackling mysteriously — expanding and contracting with fluctuations in the building’s humidity.
Built on the cheap for $2 million in the 1960s, the Burke Museum building on the University of Washington campus has no central air conditioning or climate controls. It is bursting at the seams with a collection that has outgrown the brick-and-concrete structure’s roughly 70,000 square feet.
Now, its directors say, it’s well past time for a new building.
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This winter, Burke leaders will go to the state Legislature with a request for $46.2 million, more than half of the estimated $75 million needed to build a 110,000-square-foot replacement. The new building would front 15th Avenue Northeast, just west of the existing building, which would be torn down.
Will the Legislature — already under pressure to dramatically increase funding for public schools and still in recovery mode from the recession — be willing to put up that kind of money for a natural history and cultural museum?
Burke Director Julie Stein answered the question slowly and carefully.
“Well, we know this is a heavy lift,” she said. “But we are the Washington State Museum” — designated as such by an act of the Washington Legislature in 1899.
“We are the oldest museum in Washington, and we have a responsibility to serve the teachers and the agencies in the state.”
Because display space is limited, few people ever get to see the thousands of treasures stored in the flat-roofed building on the northwest corner of the campus.
Museum leaders envision a groundbreaking design, like nothing else in the country, allowing visitors to see scientists as they work.
“People have no idea what we have,” said Birks. “And there is no way to let them know.”
Priceless items at risk
Few people realize, for example, that the museum has what is believed to be the third-largest repository of bird DNA in the world — some 55,000 samples in all, from the endangered California condor to the common crow.
It contains one of the largest collections of Russian and Asian bird tissue, as well as DNA from birds caught in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Because of the collection’s breadth, the museum could be instrumental in tracking bird flu, or helping scientists understand how global climate change is affecting bird populations.
The tiny vials are stored in six huge freezers at a temperature of minus-80 degrees Celsius (minus-112 degrees Fahrenheit). The powerful freezers throw off a lot of heat, dissipated with a single air conditioner jury-rigged to the roof.
If one of the freezers suddenly fails — which happens from time to time, especially in the summer — the staff must move its vials into the other units. There is no backup generator, and if the building were to lose power for 48 hours, the collection could be destroyed, which Birks said would be “a global disaster for ornithology.”
Museum-goers are familiar with the Burke’s dinosaur fossils, model skeletons and exhibits of Pacific Rim native cultures. But that’s only a small part of a collection that includes 50,000 ethnographic objects — cultural treasures such as Northwest Coast native drums, boxes, baskets and boats.
Because these items are made with a mix of natural materials, humidity causes them to stretch and pull in different directions, said Andrews, the museum’s collections manager.
Objects made from a mix of materials, such as wood-framed drums with animal-skin heads, are at greatest risk. Some drum heads have cracked, so curators have sealed many of them in plastic bags to prevent further degradation.
In storage areas that can reach 90 degrees in the summer, stand-alone dehumidifiers run nonstop to wring moisture out of the air.
Opened in 1885
The museum opened in 1885 on the UW campus, then located in downtown Seattle, to house natural-history artifacts collected by a group of early university students.
In 1962, collector and philanthropist Caroline McGilvra Burke willed $575,000 for a new building, and asked that the museum be named in honor of her husband, Judge Thomas Burke.
Even 50 years ago, the building was a tight squeeze for all the treasures the museum had accumulated, according to a 1962 story in The Seattle Times. “Knowing where to pigeonhole things is a terrible problem,” museum director Walter Fairservis said at the time.
In recent years, the Legislature has twice designated money toward planning for a new Burke, including $300,000 in 2009 and $3.5 million in 2012. On Thursday, the Burke directors will ask the UW Board of Regents for permission to hire a contractor to help with the design process. Tribes, educators, Burke neighbors and others will all be consulted.
The Burke’s nonprofit association has raised $6.7 million toward a goal of $25 million in private money for the project.
Why not try to raise all the money from private donors? Stein, the director, emphasized that nearly all of the Burke’s collections are owned by the state. What’s more, a contribution from public funds should loosen private purse strings.
The museum staff first explored renovating the existing building to install climate controls and expand exhibit space, but that was too expensive and there was no guarantee it would work.
A new building would allow visitors to see much of the science work and ethnographic studies that now go on behind the exhibits.
“We want to show people how do you do science, how do you do research, how do you study these collections,” Stein said. “Our current building absolutely defeats us in this mandate.”