After years of waiting, the new Burke Museum is finally open to the public. The UW’s museum of natural history and Pacific Northwest culture has been under construction since the groundbreaking in May 2016.
What sets this museum apart from other natural history and cultural museums is that the new Burke aims to tell a complete story with how they present their artifacts and information. The museum has three floors, each floor specializing in a different aspect of the museum’s work. The ground floor focuses on contemporary cultures of the Pacific Northwest, the second floor focuses on biology, and the third floor focuses on archaeology and paleontology.
Opposite each of the galleries are research labs and open workrooms where one can interact with real scientists and scholars at work and ask them about their current research. This removes the veil of mystery and invites the visitor to be a part of the research. The idea of accessibility and transparency is evident in almost every aspect of the visitor experience.
My first sketch is of David Boxley, a Tsimshian artist who was working with his two sons on wooden masks in the open artists’ studio. This space is for artists to present work that is in progress and to give them a chance to interact with the public and share their craft and knowledge. This section of the museum was curated with input and consultation from six Northwest Native artists. They selected works from the Burke’s archives they felt the most connected to and contributed their own work to showcase in the exhibit.
This gallery was especially moving for me because my grandmother Betty Pasco, a native Suquamish artist, was one of the co-curators who had her art showcased alongside pieces she picked from the Burke’s collection. Hearing her talk about her craft with such respect for her ancestors reminded me of why it’s so important to keep artistic and cultural traditions alive. This exhibit reminds us that these cultures are thriving and part of a continuous story.
The second floor focuses on the evolution of life. The highlight of this floor is probably the biology preparation lab where specimens are prepared and researched. The day I visited researchers were dissecting a Komodo dragon. Kids and adults were all crowded around the viewing window as a scientist made incisions, pulled apart entrails, and meticulously took apart various muscles and ligaments.
The third floor focuses on paleontology and archaeology. For those who love bones and fossils, this gallery is for you. Allosaurus, T-Rex, and Triceratops skeletons all make an appearance. In the far corner are three giants of the ice age: a giant ground sloth, a Columbian mammoth, and a saber-toothed cat from what is now California. The mammoth dominates the space, and because of the large windows behind the specimens, which bring in natural light and a view of the environment outside, these specimens feel more at home than surrounded by plaster and a glass case.
The new Burke is a refreshing experience and turns the traditional idea of the cultural and natural history museum on its head. A more complete and inclusive narrative is told, transparency and openness are welcomed, and visitors and researchers occupy the same space to learn, inspire, and create.
Until the next sketch,
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