A mastodon replica is shown in the lobby on Thursday, September 12, 2019, at the new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. 
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A mastodon replica is shown in the lobby on Thursday, September 12, 2019, at the new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

The new Burke Museum lets visitors peek behind the scenes

Seattle's new Burke Museum turns the museum "inside out," giving visitors the chance to interact with artifacts and peer through windows into curators' workshops.

The museum will hold a grand re-opening celebration from October 12 -14.

Founded in 1899, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is the oldest museum in the state. The old museum building stood in the same spot on the University of Washington campus for 63 years.

Now, its formidable collections have been transferred to the new museum building. With just five weeks to go until the opening, Executive Director Julie Stein is eager to welcome visitors.

"We’re ready," she said. "Well, we’re not totally ready. But we’ve been waiting for visitors for months.”

The new building is open and airy. A skylight over the central staircase illuminates a three-story mural that features images from the collection, like dinosaurs and fossils, mixed with everyday icons such as stars and hearts.

At the top of the stairs hangs the skeleton of a Plesiosaur, a frightening-looking marine reptile with a long neck, small head, and giant flippers.

Stein is excited for people to walk into the lobby and see the giant whale that hangs there.

"Right now the shades are down because we want to keep the specimens a secret until opening day," she said. But on opening day, "these shades will come up, the spotlights will go on, and the visitor will see an incredibly gigantic 30-foot Baird's beaked whale and a giant mastodon.”

The process of designing and building the new museum has taken a decade and cost $106 million. It was funded by the Washington State through the University of Washington, the museum's earned revenue, donors, and grants.

The old building no longer provided a safe environment for the artifacts. One of the biggest issues they faced, Stein said, was climate control. The building got very cold in the winter and hot in the summer. "The objects would respond to changes in humidity," she said, "especially our basket collection. They would respond by absorbing moisture so quickly that they would actually squeak, they would crack and quake, and we would hear them.”

The Burke's origin was a group of young men, including Edmond Meany and Charles Denny, who formed a club called the “Young Naturalists” and began collecting animal specimens and artifacts.

These men "were horrified at how quickly the ecosystem was changing," Stein said. "The fish were leaving, trees were being cut down. Native Americans were being pushed off their land, and they were desperately trying to capture what was here and what was disappearing. It’s a story reminiscent of conversations we have today.”

The Burke holds more than 16 million artifacts, including the world’s largest collection of spread bird wings.

But the museum’s most famous and controversial resident was the Kennewick Man — or, as Native Americans called him, the Ancient One. The nearly complete 9- thousand-year-old skeleton was discovered in 1996 on the shore of the Columbia River.

The remains became the subject of a dispute between scientists who wanted to study them and tribal members who wanted rebury them. The Burke housed the Kennewick man during the course of the nine year court case.

Eventually, the tribal members prevailed. The remains were returned to Columbia Basin tribes for reburial at an undisclosed location, according to their traditions.

But many Northwest tribes entrust their artifacts to the Burke for safekeeping.

Stein said the museum’s mission is not just to preserve natural history, but to heal. The word “'heal' is always confusing to some people," she said, "But remember that lots of the cultural objects in this museum were taken during times of colonial oppression. And the people may have sold their family heirlooms, but they were doing so in a time of economic crisis, they were starving. So we offer an opportunity for people to come and reconnect with the objects made by their ancestors so that we can all acknowledge that colonial past and attempt to heal as we go forward.”

Patrons of the old Burke museum will remember the elegant boiserie coffee shop with its French wood paneling, over-the-door paintings and a limestone fireplace. The café opened 1979 and was a popular gathering place. The wood paneling returns to the New Burke in the fancy multi-purpose Cascade Room, that will be available to rent.