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The new Burke Museum brings history and culture out into the open – Curbed Seattle

The Burke Museum, a natural history museum on the University of Washington (UW) campus, opened the doors to its new facility October 12. In the 113,000-square-foot facility designed by Olson Kundig, the 130-year-old natural history museum hopes to show off more of its massive collection of fossils, artifacts, and American Indian art—which, until now, has been filed away in closed-off spaces—to the public.

The culmination of a decade of planning, the new building is designed to bring all of its work together by integrating the museum’s research and preservation efforts into the visitor experience. Previously, visitors couldn’t see the scientists behind the scenes researching, cleaning, and restoring items. With the new facility, glass panes between public and behind-the-scenes spaces and more versatile storage bring the full collection out of dark closets and into the light.

Over the past century and change, the Burke has bounced around between less-than-ideal facilities, inheriting previous buildings or settling for smaller facilities. After the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exhibition, the Burke, then the Washington State Museum, it shifted its exhibits and collections between various UW buildings, many that were leaky or bug-infested. In the late 1950s, its home at the time was condemned.

Wide windows let visitors see behind-the-scenes research and preservation, while versatile storage lets the artifacts breathe.
Mark Stone, courtesy Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture
Young visitors speak with scientists in the new preservation and research facilities.
Mark Stone, courtesy Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

Its most recent facility was custom-built in 1962, but was smaller than ideal, so the museum quickly outgrew the space as its massive collection grew. It also lacked climate control to keep its artifacts safe, equipment to analyze the collection, and visual cues to even let passers-by know it’s a museum.

The new building, completed with consultation from 29 local tribes and a Native American advisory committee, is in many ways designed to be the complete opposite of the previous building, which had gotten cramped and let in little natural light. Now, the museum is designed around open space: Skylights allow natural light to come in from above, but can darken to block brighter rays. Upper and lower lobbies are lined by windows, welcoming the public in from both the street and the university campus.

“It reads like a museum,” project architect Edward Lalonde told Curbed Seattle last year, as opposed to the “opaque” old Burke space. “People understand what they’re approaching.”

From the lower-level entrance, a large whale skeleton floats above the stairs.
Mark Stone, courtesy Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

Fittingly for a natural history museum, the exterior is designed to work with the environment around it. A sloped roof just about matches a 15-to-20-foot grade change along the site. A madrona tree that had to be removed from the site to start construction was planked and integrated into the design, coating the university-side entrance. The shed-style roof was inspired by traditional Coast Salish dwelling.

Kebony siding, constructed from southern pine, is meant to mimic area classics like fir and cedar, but with a longer lifespan. As time goes on, the wood “will age naturally to a silver,” explained Lalonde last year. “That’s important to us that the building ages well and it ages naturally.”

Building elements, like tall, skinny windows, are also meant to nod to fir and cedar.

“A major focus of the design is maximizing transparency—large areas of glazing look in from the street and the interior experience to connect the Burke to the campus, landscape and city,” says Tom Kundig, principal and owner of Olson Kundig and principal on the project. “We wanted visitors and the surrounding community to connect to the museum’s collections and artifacts, and engage with the process of scientific discovery in a true working museum.”

One of the biggest changes visitors will notice, though, is intentional space. Rather than shift between awkward dividers, small offices, and a basement, rooms are designed around exhibits and purpose.

Pictured in 2018, the Burke’s T. rex skull sports googly eyes as a visual aid.
Sarah Anne Lloyd

The Amazing Life exhibit shows how our earth’s ecosystem has functioned both in the past and today. Fossils Uncovered is the classic natural history museum fossil exhibit, with the only real dinosaur fossils on display in the state, including one of the Burke’s most famous pieces, one of the best-preserved T. rex skulls in the world. The Northwest Native Art Gallery highlights contemporary native art. Its inaugural exhibit features six Pacific Northwest Native artists answering the question “what is your artistic heritage,” with both new and historic basketry, carvings, and multimedia art. Our Material World explores our stuff of the past and present—like what artifacts can teach us about our past, or where our garbage goes in the present.

The Culture is Living gallery highlights the cultures of communities across the Pacific, showing off hundreds of objects and discussing “how museum collections address historic wrongs, invigorate cultural practices today, and inspire the future through universal elements we all share,” according to the Burke. That kind of holistic view is especially key with the Burke’s collection of Northwest Coast baskets, woodwork, boats, beading, and other cultural artifacts, collected, stored, and displayed by white people for decades.

Two play spaces and two “activity alcoves” encourage interactive learning, including touchable canoes, a climbable orca, and animal dress-up.

Anchoring the museum’s three stories of open space, “Synecdoche,” a mural by Okanagan and Arrow Lakes artist RYAN! Feddersen, stretches from floor to ceiling.
Dennis Wise, courtesy Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

The bigger space also means a breath of fresh air for both scientists and the more than 16 million artifacts in their care—the museum can have its own equipment instead of having to borrow things like imaging equipment from other UW facilities. Baskets won’t have to be stored nested in one another.

“I knew we had to do more than just build a bigger box with good air conditioning,” says Burke executive director Julie K. Stein in a statement. “People’s reaction to going behind the scenes is magic. We had to do something to create that magic for everyone who comes to the Burke, not just the select few who get a behind-the-scenes tour.”

The museum is fully open in its new facility, open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $14 for youth and non-UW students. Kids three and under and UW students, faculty, and staff get in free. Like many area museums, the first Thursday of each month is free for everyone.

This article has been updated to correct the number of artifacts in the museum’s care.

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