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In the belly of the Burke Museum

Behind the scenes at Seattle's museum of natural history and culture, you become aware of the incredible knowledge infrastructure we've created in this state museum. Plus, it houses mummies, spiders, fossils, spears, and Bobo's head: everything a budding Indiana Jones could want.

Burke Museum: Young visitor gazes at Triceratops fossil

Burke Museum: Young visitor gazes at Triceratops fossil Carol Swales

Burke Museum: Jumping spider, Cosmophasis rubra, Australia, 1974.

Burke Museum: Jumping spider, Cosmophasis rubra, Australia, 1974. Bob Thomson

Burke Museum Genetic Resources Collection: The tissue collection is stored in five -80C freezers

Burke Museum Genetic Resources Collection: The tissue collection is stored in five -80C freezers Sharon Birks

A young volunteer assists at an excavation site

A young volunteer assists at an excavation site Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

I had a chance to take a "backstage" tour of The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington. The museum is well known for its displays of artifacts ranging from dinosaur bones and mineral samples to Northwest native canoes, masks, and totem poles. And they recently acquired the skull of one of the city's most famous celebrities, Bobo the Gorilla.

Executive Director Julie Stein, an archaeologist herself, took us on a two-hour trot through the belly of the Burke where we could see some of the 14 million (and growing) items in the museum's collection, most of which are not on display. It was a chance to meet the scientists, curators and students who work with the material. The Burke is a state museum, under the aegis of the UW, with a budget of $5 million per year. In recent times, like everyone else, it has felt the budget knife. State funding between 2009-2011 was down 20 percent; endowment returns are down too. Some holes are being plugged with grants and gifts. 

The Burke is more than a collection of old stuff for public display: It's a museum where research and hard science are done, and the collection is a regional, even global, resource, valued and used by scientists around the world for studies of how species evolve and the impact of climate change, among other things. They handle some 8,500 scientific inquiries per year and host over 100,000 visitors on site — double that number in activities away from the museum (like the Burkemobile). The Burke was Seattle's first public museum and still plays a central role in telling us about where we live, and what, and who, came before.

The hard science they do is important, but not necessarily the most exciting place to start for the layperson. Our first stop on the tour is to visit the Burke's Egyptian mummy, "Nellie." She lies in a climate-controlled box wrapped in decorated cloth. She lived during the Ptolemaic period (around 300 to 30 BC), and is dated close to the time of Cleopatra. What, you ask, does she have to do with Northwest Indian art or stuffed Douglas squirrels? Nothing.

But she, along with a beautifully painted cypresswood sarcophagus covered with hieroglyphics that accompanies her (not her coffin but a specimen belonging to a long-displaced male mummy), is a symbol of the Burke's early aspirations. The mummy was a gift from a turn-of-the-century trustee who bought the coffin and mummy at an Egyptian museum the way you might pick up a souvenir snow globe at the gift shop. The Burke was founded in the late 19th century and at that time, every museum needed an ancient mummy to be worthy. Mummies also symbolize antiquity, mystery, and long-term preservation. They are tributes to the stewardship that museums are supposed to embody.

As such, they're not bad representatives of the mission of museums, but exhibiting bodies for public sensation is less politically correct these days (though Sylvester and friends endure at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop). Indeed, we met one researcher carefully going through bags of animal bones found in San Juan Island shell middens and removing what are apparently human bone chips that were mixed in (human remains are often found in these prehistoric rubbish heaps). These are being sorted out for repatriation to the Lummi Indians.

Stein says the Burke offered to return the mummy to Egypt, but the country, apparently mummy-rich, was not interested. So here she is, on this day perhaps the only Egyptian not celebrating the fall of Mubarek, yet a beautiful and poised ambassador of her culture and times. Today, she helps to ignite a sense of romance for the study of the past and the nature of museums.

Such romance doesn't seem to be required of the scientists who work in the museums labs, which extend several floors underneath the museum. Grants from FEMA have helped update areas by making them earthquake proof. Bones, fossils, and objects ranging from baskets and spear points to masks and bones sit on shelves or in drawers in giant, heavy metal cabinets that can be moved back and forth on tracks to maximize storage space and protect the collections from disaster, at least from non-budgetary ones. 


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