Burke Museum: Oh, what displays the public could see

The natural history museum hopes donors and the state can create a truly 21st century museum that encourages touching and doing, not just looking.
The natural history museum hopes donors and the state can create a truly 21st century museum that encourages touching and doing, not just looking.

A tattooed man in a black T-shirt stands at a Burke Museum laboratory counter cleaning flesh off the detached foot of Watoto , the elephant that was euthanized in August after collapsing at the Woodland Park Zoo. Nearby, three volunteers, seated at tables with little heaps of sawdust before them, prepare small mammal carcasses for mounting. On another table lies a small display board covered with elegant, outspread bird wings. The world's largest collection of bird wings is housed in the bowels of the Burke — where basically nobody sees them.

A curator or volunteer who prepares a bird for the Burke collection always takes a wing, explains museum director Julie Stein. He or she also takes tissue samples from skeletal muscle, heart and liver, to be saved for their DNA. The museum houses what may be the world's third-largest collection of bird tissue. Each set of samples rests in a small vial inside one of a bank of freezers at the edge of that lab room that keeps them at 80 below zero Celsius. Open a freezer door and vapor drifts up, as it does from dry ice. An air conditioner sucks away waste heat from the freezer compressors. This is the only spot in the entire 70,000-square-foot museum with air conditioning. But, says museum director Julie Stein, it doesn't have a backup generator. If the power went out, the Burke would be out of luck. "The tissue collections," Stein says, "are 48 hours away from being destroyed."

Stein walks through the cramped backstage area in which the Burke stores its collection of Native American baskets. They rest on shelves stacked floor to ceiling, some cases 10 shelves high, on and on. The Burke holds some 8,500 baskets, 6,000 of them from the Americas. If you walk through this storage area when the season changes and the humidity rises, she says, "you can hear them creaking" as the fibers expand. Enough years of that, she says, and they'll all turn to dust.

Stein is making the case for a new museum building to replace the current structure that opened on the University of Washington campus in 1962. The new building would be climate-controlled, to protect the collections, and would enable visitors — whom up-to-date museums now consider "guests" — to walk through glassed-in storage areas and labs, seeing specimens and science that current guests can only imagine.

The new structure would run along 15th Avenue NE, west of the current museum, between NE 45th and 43rd streets, with its main entrance at 43rd.

Crosscut archive image.

An artist's sketch of the proposed new Burke Museum. . This view looks northeast from NE 43rd St. and 15th Ave. NE. Olson Kundig Architects | Stephanie Bower Architectural Illustration

In January, Stein will ask the Legislature for $46 million. The new building will be a $75-million project. She hopes the state will pony up two-thirds, with the rest to come from grants and private donations.

The state has already provided roughly $4 million for preliminary and design work. Some large private donations will be contingent on the Legislature's willingness to contribute state funds — and vice versa: Some legislators want to know that the Burke has community support, Stein says, and they've been "thrilled to hear that we are coming to the Legislature with definite proof in the form of pledges and gifts."

Given that the state Supreme Court has put the Legislature under pressure to come up with billions more dollars for basic education and that legislators don't want to raise taxes, does she really expect that kind of money for a new museum? People are always telling her to wait, Stein concedes, but she argues, "This is the time."

The great natural history museums are creations of the late 19th century. New York's American Museum of Natural History was founded on the west side of a brand-new Central Park in 1869 by a group of rich people that included Teddy Roosevelt's father. Chicago's Field Museum was established on the shore of Lake Michigan when the Columbian Exposition drew visitors there in 1893. The Burke's collection dates from the late 19th century, too, although it didn't have its own building until 1962.

These are beloved institutions, enshrined in generations of childhood memories. But what is the place of a natural history museum in the 21st Century?

"We are building a concept of showing all the people of Washington how research is done," Stein says. The Burke's collection belongs to the people, she maintains, and they should be able to see it. Right now, the museum has about 2,000 items on display at any one time. The collections hold some 16 million. The new layout would enable guests to see many more.

"Our concept is to let people see all of this," Stein says, "which is not the 19th-century view of a natural history museum." In a traditional museum, nobody touches anything. But, with a new facility, she says, "The Burke Museum is going to allow people the opportunity to see everything [and] to touch a lot of things." It will provide "access to watching real scientists do science [and to] have an interactive experience with an object. . . . This is the 21st- century museum."

As the state natural history museum, she says, "It is our role to inspire the next generation of researchers and people who are going to care about this place."

A 21st-century museum might also help solve a 21st-century problem: "We are getting more disassociated from nature," she says, and many kids may suffer from what is called nature deficit disorder. Stein argues that a natural history museum can teach them about nature as it exists in their own urban neighborhoods and stimulate interest in the world beyond the screen. "We bring them indoors so that they can go outdoors."

But do kids who spend much of their free time looking at pixels really connect with the objects at the Burke? Stein says they do; they may spend a lot of hours in a virtual world, but they know the real thing. And they like it. Tens of thousands of kids encounter the Burke's educational displays every year. To get them in — literal — contact with reality, Stein says, "We work very hard to collect specimens that can be touched. We sometimes ask Native American artists to make us objects with the full understanding that they will be used by K-12 students and even preschoolers."

And kids aren't the only ones who like dealing with things from the natural and non-industrial worlds. There are just as many adults who enjoy the opportunity to experience the real object, Stein suggests. "To bring your child to Dino Day," she says, "is sometimes an excuse."

The Burke is also trying to bring some kids inside, where scientists work. The museum's curator of paleobotany, Caroline Strömberg, has been taking groups of girls on the near side of adolescence — just the age at which many girls decide science isn't for them — into the labs, so they can learn that science may really be their thing. Last year, Strömberg says, she worked with 5th and 6th graders, who looked at plant fossils and had Estella Leopold, UW professor emeritus of botany, forest resources and quaternary research, tell them about ancient pollen. This year, girls in grades 6 though 8 will look at a broader range of subjects. They started, she says, by testing hypotheses: Is there an equal number of each color in an M & Ms package? The answer is no, "it's not evenly distributed, as I would have thought," Strömberg says. (An analysis of the reasons done several years ago is here.)

Crosscut archive image.

Dr. Caroline Strömberg, Burke Museum Curator of Paleobotany, with Girls in Geoscience participants. Photo: Richard Brown.

In the new museum, guests of all ages who walk through the glassed-off storage areas will basically look over the shoulders of people working in the labs, getting a sense of the process behind the exhibits.

They won't be able to see Kennewick Man, the 9000-year-old skeleton held at the Burke under a 1998 federal court order, that Smithsonian Magazine recently called "the most important human skeleton ever found in North America," or the artifacts excavated from the site of Old Man House, once perhaps the largest human population center on the Salish Sea. Those artifacts were returned to the Suquamish tribe last year after the tribe opened its own brand-new museum. Maybe the guests won't be able to cup the smooth stone forms of dinosaur eggs, either, but they can certainly see the early-19th-century leggings made of cut-down Chilkat [or Chilcoot] blanket hung with puffin beaks, the racks of thick mastodon bones, the sperm whale jaw. Now, to display the sperm whale jaw, Stein explains, one must first move furniture out of the way, then assemble a team of people to schlep the massive bone down a narrow corridor to the elevator. (One assumes the giant sloth skeleton, found during Sea-Tac runway construction in 1961, will always be on display out front.)

Visitors should be able to see some of the long-hidden plant fossils, too. Strömberg, who is also the University's Estella B. Leopold Associate Professor in Biology, pulls out a thin slab of sandstone that contains a pair of fossil leaves. The slender one is a magnolia, Strömberg explains, and the rounder one a gingko, both now native only to east Asia, but both collected at Republic, in the Okanogan highlands of central Washington, where they were covered by lake sediments 47 million years ago. The Republic fossils (uncovered through excavations conducted and promoted by the Burke's late curator of paleobotany, artist and Boswell to other Northwestern artists, Wes Wehr) represent the widest assortment of early Eocene temperate plant fossils found anywhere.

Crosscut archive image.

Eocene fossil plants from the Stonerose site in Republic. Photo courtesy of the Burke Museum

Strömberg pulls out a blocky little four-petaled "stonerose" — not really a rose — found in profusion at Republic, and a delicate, arching branchlet of a dawn redwood. A dawn redwood fossil found beside the road in 1977 by Wehr and a young friend who had just gotten his driver's license sparked Wehr's interest in Republic. The young friend, Kirk Johnson, is now director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Strömberg explains that the Republic plant fossils date from a period during which the earth was unusually warm, with no ice, high sea levels and relatively slight differences in temperature from the equator to the poles. No current climate model explains that warming. Despite all the computing power focused recently on climate, it's a mystery. She says that a post-doctoral student will be looking at micro-fossils — her own particular expertise — from Washington up into the far north in a study that may shed more light on what happened.

It's no mystery where that elephant foot will wind up. It will join an existing assemblage of skeletal extremities, including a grizzly foot with heavy scimitar claws still curving from the toes, that shows the biological basis for radically different styles of locomotion. Maybe visitors will eventually see it. That group of specimens can provides an entry point into teaching people how science is done. Stein says that the skeletal collection encourages people "to look at something and ask questions."

"This is the only natural history museum in all of the Northwest. If we're going to tell that story, we have to tell it here."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.