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“Culture is Living”: The New Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

After a long gestation, the transformation of the old Burke Museum is like a chrysalis suddenly bursting forth into a dazzling architectural creation. This venerable 140-year-old institution, a source of inspiration to those who knew it, struggled to achieve its goals in a series of three inadequate structures where only a fraction of its holdings could be displayed. Despite the constraints, the luminaries of Burke Museum, especially Bill Holm and his successor, Robin Wright, along with many native collaborators, made enormous contributions to the study of the indigenous peoples of the Northwest, recording history, analyzing art and disseminating knowledge. At the same time paleontologists revealed the region’s prehistory. More school children visited the Burke than any other museum in Seattle.

The New Burke’s Grand Atrium welcomes visitors with a mastodon, Baird’s Beaked Whale skeleton, Credit : Mark Stone, courtesy Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

Under the dynamic leadership of the director, Judith Stein, a building committee worked for ten years to realize a vision for the museum’s future. They aimed to carry on the Burke’s mission of research, preservation and education more effectively in a purpose-built environment designed for public participation. They avoided the trap of hiring a superstar architect from far away to produce a provocative form. Instead, they commissioned an award-winning local architect Tom Kundig, who listened to them and responded by creating a simple, economical volume with a flexible interior.

The result is a world class museum that brings its collection to life and offers vivid interpretations. While the traditional museum displays and identifies objects, the new Burke is a place in which ideas, principles and connections lead the way. Large wall signs demonstrate the Burke’s philosophy:

“Culture is living. From the time we are born to the time we pass we live our lives together connected to one another through community and culture.” “Life is linked. Every living thing plays a role to keep the ecosystem working smoothly.” “Traditions teach and ignite.” “We are responsible for our earth.” “Honor, learn, inspire, create.”

The Burke has always been a research institute, dedicated to the study of paleontology, archaeology, biology and the culture of our region. The expert staff worked in back rooms and basements, unseen by the public. But, in the new museum, everything is turned inside-out: labs and studios are open to view, interspersed with fascinating displays. Around giant skeletons flying overhead or works of Coast Salish art, we can watch paleontologists cleaning stone off fossils or fabric specialists restoring ancient weaving.

Children get a closer look at canoes and other watercraft in the new Culture is Living gallery. Image courtesy Dennis Wise, courtesy Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

Demonstrating its deep commitment to the complex and urgent issue of native artifact restitution, such as stolen house posts and totem poles, a wall-sign boldly declares, “The Burke acknowledges the violent legacies of colonialism.” Among recent actions the museum returned artifacts to the Muckleshoot tribe as well as to Peru in 2014.

Contemporary art plays a key role. Most prominently, RYAN! Feddersen (Okanagen and Lakes) created the subtle Synedoche, “a cascade of transforming glyphs drawn from motifs in the Burke collection and the world at large” on a vast wall beside the staircase that rises through three stories.

Unlike conventional museums with a series of distinct rooms, each focusing on a category of exhibits, space in the Burke flows from one section to another. In fact, it is possible to see the entire length of the interior from the first-floor entry. A sense of transparency permeates the building. This allows thematic and visual intersections. Connecting inside and outside, the skeletons of a mammoth, giant sloth and saber-tooth tiger rear up against the background of trees. A few showcases are placed against walls in the conventional manner, but we can look through most of them to enticing sights beyond.

The Off the Rez Café, already renowned for its amazing food trucks, serves mouth-watering snacks and meals based on Indian traditions. In fine weather, it opens through an ingenious kinetic wall to outdoor seating in the plaza on the south side.

The new Burke Museum revitalizes the north-east corner of the campus where its forerunner lurked behind trees. Its rectilinear form exposing a black steel frame on the ground level is clad on the upper floors with sustainable scotch pine that will weather to a natural silvery color. A few tall, irregularly placed openings at the upper level supply daylight and views out.

The landscaping by Shannon Nichol features a camas prairie on the west side of the museum that will evoke the wild prairies that once covered much of the state. When it blooms purple in the spring it will offer a beautiful sight. 80,000 plants of sixty species native to Washington will complete the transformation of the site into a spectacular entrance to the campus, directly aligned with University district light rail station. The plaza will serve as a place for celebrations as well as parking. Indeed, it was the venue for a series of thrilling opening events from October 9th to 14th.

The Burke Museum

4300 15th Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98105, 206-543-7907

Open daily 10am–5pm, First Thursdays 10am–8pm. Admission: Adults $22; Seniors $20; Youth 4–17 $14; First Thursday Free.

~Henry Matthews, Architectural Historian

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