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The new Burke Museum makes room for millions of artifacts

The Olson Kundig-designed building is designed for public consumption—but first, staff has to move in

The new Burke Museum.
Courtesy of Burke Museum

The Burke Museum, a natural history museum on the University of Washington (UW) campus, outgrew its space some time ago. Its old facility, built in 1962, lacks not only space for its massive collection, but 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.

A new facility 10 years in the making, designed by local firm Olson Kundig, is officially completed—and with the new building, the Burke hopes to usher in a new era of collaboration between the region’s past, the facility’s research, and the public.

The old facility, said Burke Executive Director Dr. Julie K. Stein at a press preview last week, is full of “gorgeous objects with interesting labels”—but visitors can’t see the scientists behind the scenes researching, cleaning, and restoring items. With the new facility, the Burke wanted to make sure that “the architecture didn’t thwart our efforts to bring the people and the objects together.”

The interior of the museum tries to blend that behind-the-scenes work with public exhibits with glass walls between the public areas and the research facilities. It goes with a larger theme of 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.

Looking upward past a few levels of balconies, a large, rectangular skylight glows a translucent, deep blue.
A skylight tinted at a setting designed to block harsh sunlight.
Sarah Anne Lloyd

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

The design also hopes to pay homage to the Pacific Northwest history preserved in the objects within. Outside, said Lalonde, 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. “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.

The paneling and windows are both meant as homage to fir, cedar, and other Pacific Northwest trees.
Courtesy of Burke Museum

Other elements interact directly with the surrounding environment, with a sloped roof that is “more or less parallel” to 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 and, eventually, a mount for a skeleton in the lobby.

Outside, the “Burke Yard” will become “spill-out space” for events, exhibits, and work on larger objects.

The building work was completed with consultation from 29 local tribes, said Stein, plus a Native American advisory committee—especially key with the Burke’s collection of Northwest Coast baskets, woodwork, boats, beading, and other cultural artifacts.

With more space, the Burke will also have room for tools that the museum periodically had to borrow from other areas of the campus. Stein recounted a time when an Egyptian mummy visited the UW Medical School for a CT scan at 3 a.m. so as not to interrupt any medical procedures for alive humans. Flesh-eating beetles used to clean artifacts are currently very carefully stored on-site, but the new building has space off the loading dock to ensure the critters don’t escape into the museum. Researchers will have more freezers, microscopes, and storage to work with.

Now that the work on the building is done, focus has shifted to those that will eventually be working behind those glass walls—plus some extra help—as they prepare to 16 million artifacts, ranging from small shells to massive prehistoric skeletons.

Pictured through a red wheel, a dinosaur skull has googly eyes attached to its eye sockets.
A T.rex skull is among the artifacts at the Burke Museum. Googly eyes were added as a visual aid after visitors asked where the eyes were.
Sarah Anne Lloyd

Standing near a T.rex skull in the old facility, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Greg Wilson described the painstakingly precise process to make sure everything gets moved accurately. Small objects in trays stashed in drawers and cabinets, and each tray needs to be taken out and photographed to ensure everything looks the same once it moves next door.

It’s a long process, said Wilson, but it’s worth it to get to the new facility: “We have a lot more space in the new museum, more cabinets, more growth.”

Molly Winslow, hired to help move the ethnology collections, spoke to us while wrapping a basket to pack up and move into the new facility. As each basket is packed, staff evaluates the item to make sure the object’s features and conditions match what’s in the database and whether it needs any restoration work.

The goal, said Winslow, is to “store these objects the way they deserve to be stored.”

Part of that is giving the baskets more space. With the current, limited facility, some baskets are being stored nested in others.

“We reached the capacity in this building many years ago,” said Winslow.

A sign outside of an ethnology facility tracks the packing progress.
Sarah Anne Lloyd

The team has been working since September, and as of last week, the team has packed up nearly 6,000 baskets—and like in paleontology, each item needs to be carefully accounted for.

The ethnology collection alone includes 50,000 objects, said Winslow, “ranging from a canoe to basket smaller than a dime.”

Museum staff starts moving those objects into the facility later this month, and that process will likely continue until the end of the old building’s lifespan in early 2019.

But before the old building is demolished, said Stein, the Burke is planning a “massive New Years Eve party” to say goodbye.

“‘Massive party’ is natural history museum party,” clarified Stein. “Hopefully it will be a bit of a party.”