In the belly of the Burke Museum

Burke Museum: Young visitor gazes at Triceratops fossil Credit: Carol Swales

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. 

Office and work spaces are scattered throughout. In one room, a student scrapes the hide of a dead raccoon; in another, minerals are spread out on tables for use in teaching. One impressive closet has a freezer-like container filled with the rotting carcasses of dead animals being devoured by small black beetles, an efficient way to get specimens reduced to bone. The smell is ghastly, the animal corpses as unidentifiable as roadkill. It is important, we are told, to keep the beetles fed; otherwise they might stray into unwanted parts of the museum. There are good reasons why this is all behind a heavy door.

In another room, two men with high-speed drills that sound like a swarm of prehistoric mosquitoes, are meticulously chipping away rock to reveal the fossilized bones of ancient creatures. One is a monstrous, hippo-sized critter with scary-looking teeth who roamed Montana before the dinosaurs, back when the earth had only one large continent, Pangaea. It was clearly no utopia for creatures like us who might have been not much more than morsels. 

Another fossil looks a tad more familiar as it emerges from hard stone. The retired volunteer who is working on it tells us they are likely the remains of a mammal similar to a sea otter. Its bones were found on the Oregon Coast, and it lived there some 30 million years ago, a fact that makes me marvel at the idea that fur-bearing sea-otter-like creatures have frolicked on this coast longer than we can imagine, yet their modern descendants were largely wiped out by 18th- and 19th-century trappers and traders in an eye-blink, largely because the Chinese were willing to pay dearly for their pelts. 

The electronic chiseling is painstaking. The old “otter” bones are only a third revealed, but it has taken six months to get that far (the volunteer only works a day per week, and the going is slow). But it makes you appreciate the fossils that are on display in exhibits upstairs and across the country: A paleontologist can spend a couple of weeks in the field, but then might take literally years to process the material gathered. I don’t think I’ll ever look at a dinosaur skeleton the same way again. Despite the Indiana Jones image, so much of archaeology and paleontology is extraordinarily tedious and slow-going, which makes one reflect on the person-hours invested in things we take for granted. The “romance” of archaeology and paleontology comes to you courtesy of dedicated people who must be obsessive-compulsives.

In an adjacent corridor there are shelves full of mastodon and mammoth bones and tusks which, being stone, we are free to touch. The smooth fossilized ivory of the tusks looks like petrified wood, its sleek dark surfaces tempting to the hands. Huge jaws with mammoth-sized mammoth molars convey a sense of scale for how much cud was chewed and the big teeth it took to process it all. It puts me in mind of a man from the Department of Natural Resources who told me of asking a member of the S’Klallam tribe on the Olympic Peninsula what was the cultural significance of a nearby hill. “That is where our ancestors watched for the elephants,” he was told. Museums aren’t the only repository of deep, collective memory of place.

Not all fossils are gigantic, however. We are ushered into a room where two women work with microscopes on foraminifera, which are tiny fossilized amoebas encrusted in minute shells or accumulated sediment as a protective coating. Some are as big as grain of sand, but it’s stunning to see them through a microscope: these sea creatures are both alien and familiar, some like sea snails or other recognizable forms, others like strange, geometric shapes with a pearly sheen. These are flea-circus fossils, and nearby old cabinets containing slide trays hold more than a million specimens that researchers accumulated over a half century. Nature digitized its secrets long before Bill Gates came along.

More rambling through the hallways, and it’s hard to keep attention focused on any one thing. We pop into an old office and find a gnomish man with silver John Denverish hair and large spectacles. He’s on his knees, digging in a cupboard. It turns out he is Bill Holm, the legendary Northwest Coast Indian art historian, scholar, author, and curator emeritus at the Burke. He is an accomplished artist himself, a teacher and a living treasure. 

Now in his mid-80s, Holm is not often in his Burke office these days, but Julie Stein is delighted to see him, and we talk about his introduction to the museum back in the late 1930s when, as a 12-year-old, he was given the run of it by anthropologist Erna Gunther, then head of the museum. Back then, the Burke was in the former Washington State Pavilion, a lovely (since demolished) brick building left over from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. It was largely devoted to ethnology (Gunther was a student of the famed Franz Boas).

Holm said Gunther let kids like him explore and hang out at the museum, and the rules in those days were looser. Today, you cannot touch most artifacts; but Holm remembers borrowing a canoe from the museum for use in a school play. Yet it’s easy to understand how youthful enthusiasms can be indulged and grown in places like this, a world of curiosities, art, and nature, an institution devoted to science and possibilities, to keeping alive the mind of the world. After all, the Burke was essentially founded by a group of teenage boys.

The scientific possibilities are intriguing. The Burke’s ornithology collection consists in part of drawer upon drawer of stuffed birds from all over, the collection still growing. Scientists can examine samples of birds taken more than a century ago from many places, to learn how they vary over time. Tests can determine what they ate and where they ate it. New genetic tests are now possible, and are less expensive due to computer-power. A bird’s relatives and ancestors can be tracked, as well as its breeding habits. Tests are possible that weren’t possible or affordable a decade ago. We are shown a freezer containing avian tissue samples. Part of the museum’s mission is to preserve material for scientists performing experiments and conducting studies we can’t even imagine now. The groundwork is being laid for research that might not occur for decades, or a century.

The drawers of birds are fascinating: we see extinct species, like a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers from the southeastern U.S. The samples were taken before they (apparently) died out. And there are samples of beautiful kingfishers from southeast Asia. There are drawers of gorgeous little hummingbirds, some of the hundreds of species of that bird, these from Mexico. It’s strange to see them so still, but they are a wonder to observe closely, their iridescent feathers more complex than any naked eye can catch, than any bird book artist can capture with paint or ink. One small bird is labeled as having “enlarged testes.” How could you tell on a hummingbird? Nothing is visible to the untrained eye.

In an era when every public expenditure is endlessly questioned, it might seem strange to defend spending state money and time on people who inspect the minute reproductive organs of foreign hummingbirds. But these people are the highway-builders of knowledge, the people whose job is to help figure out just how our planet and its residents tick. They are working to explain the unexplained, searching for new insights, deepening our understanding. Are the challenges that Washington, the Pacific Northwest, America, the world face going to be better tackled with the benefit of this expanding knowledge and inquiry, or with less of it? There’s a knowledge infrastructure here that is deep, and precious, at the Burke and at other public and private museums. For the vast majority of the public, the work is invisible. But foundations often are.

Over the years, the Burke has contemplated expanding. Some years back, there was a notion to build a longhouse-style space to the north. The current Burke is not particularly well designed for exhibits with pillars that break up the space. Stein says there’s a new long-term concept in the works that could be a $52 million redo. I ask if it would be more akin to the dramatic Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, a destination for visitors to Vancouver wanting a dramatic, revelatory exhibit of traditional and rare Northwest Coast native artworks. But she says that unlike that museum, which has put so much of its collection on display and thus unavailable for research, the new idea (Olson Kundig Architects is working on the pre-design phase) is to redesign the museum and its exhibits so that visitors could also see the scientists and the museum staff at work. Stein says the New Burke would exhibit the exhibitors and the collection as it’s being studied, restored, and used.

I have seen similar things done elsewhere: The inheritors of Stradivarius’s art, making violins at the Italian Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, or the display of dinosaur bones in situ at a working dig at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Back in the 1960s, the UW’s new nuclear reactor building on campus was designed with windows so the public could see the nuclear engineers, daylighting the secrets of atomic alchemy.

The new museum concept would effectively turn the Burke inside out, giving every visitor a backstage tour. In this era of transparency and skepticism, not a bad idea. The Burke would make no secrets of its work and value, with the public reminded of what it’s paying for. Done properly, it could have the feel of giving us all the run of the place as the youthful Bill Holm once had, witnessing first-hand the process of discovery.

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