Burke Museum – Seattle

The final installment of the 7M7D project takes a look at the Burke Museum, which can be found on the UW campus. While the collection was established in the 1880s by students of the Territorial University of Washington, the museum gained its name and final home in 1962 after a bequest in honor of Thomas Burke by his wife Caroline.

As a natural history, the Burke explores the history of Washington State from the perspective of the landscape, biology, and ethnographic material. Things like ichthyology, paleontology, mammalogy, botany, and archeology are just a few areas covered by this richly diverse museum.

In the permanent galleries, visitors can explore the “Life and Times of Washington State”. I started seemingly at the end of this gallery and worked my way backward in time. The benefit of this type of exhibit design is that it doesn’t much matter with the end you start with. My journey began with a discussion of evolution and biodiversity. The biodiversity displays were thorough in their scientific discussion while maintaining a fun and engaging appearance. Complex scientific concepts are notoriously difficult to tackle in a museum setting, but the Burke handles it with apparent ease. The use of interactive displays and QR codes help engage visitors in the material.

Biodiversity Display

Another area of history this museum handles well is the cohabitation of early humans and animals. I believe that too often early humans are displayed out of context with their natural surroundings. The placement and discussion of Clovis points, as well as other worked stone, alongside fossils of mammoths maintains the proximity in space and time that these entities existed.

dinosaurs – Burke Museum -Seattle

It isn’t a natural history museum without dinosaurs. These are the flashy showstoppers of the museum industry. The Burke uses dynamic posing and beautiful backdrops to bring their fossils to life. Visitors are encouraged to interact with these fossils by comparing their footprint to dinosaurs and measuring their height against a leg bone. The Triceratops skull drew my attention as an example of how to discuss the actual scarcity of fossilized dinosaurs. The areas of reconstruction are intentionally obvious, while unobtrusive, and the original fossilized material is far less than complete. I always appreciate when museums focus on being clear about what they have and where the research has filled in the gaps. It is vital for the demystification of the sciences for the public.

In the stairwell, there is a selection of prints from the collection of Dr. Simon Ottenberg. These photographs of Coast Salish native art are beautiful and feature these pieces in natural settings. I was pleased to see the museum being aware of its space and utilizing the stairwell to showcase pieces that wouldn’t necessarily fit in other galleries.

Downstairs is the “Pacific Voices” gallery, which looks at the ethnic and cultural diversity of Washington and the Pacific. The cases in this gallery look at specific elements of culture, rather than try to encapsulate a group in such a small space. Things like language, marriage, art, and religious celebrations are just a few such topics. Most are accompanied by pronunciation and contextual guides for better appreciation of the material. There is a wonderful diversity of people represented and the vignettes make great use of color and texture to define their space.

The end of my 7M7D project coincided with the opening of the “Imagine That: Surprising Stories and Amazing Objects from the Burke Museum” exhibit. This exhibit poses a vast array of questions pertaining to the role of museums in our society and how they function. Questions like who owns these objects, why do we keep objects, and where do they come from? Many of these questions are ones museum professionals continually have to address in their work.

A quote on display here is of particular note “Museums are like icebergs: there is always far more going on beyond what you can see at the surface” Neil McGregor, Director at the British Museum. This concept of the mysterious museum is precisely what the Burke is addressing in their exhibit. They clearly illustrate they work they do and why it matters. That is something truly ambitious.


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