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New Burke turns old museum 'inside-out' to make collections and staff more accessible

The Burke Museum in Seattle holds more than 16 million objects related to natural and cultural history. At any given time in the past, only a tiny fraction of the collection has been visible to the public.

Soon a much greater percentage of the objects will be visible. After closing its doors to the public more than nine months ago, the Burke has moved into a new building.  

It’s designed to make the collection — and the people who work with it — more accessible. There are 12 visible labs and workrooms, part of an architectural concept meant to turn the museum "inside out."

As soon as you enter, you see tons of transparent glass. The lobby is surrounded by views of the landscape outside, which soon will be filled with a curated collection of native plants and trees. And as you climb up stairs into the new galleries, window panes are everywhere. You can see all kinds of museum staff at work: cleaning objects, restoring them, doing data entry.

Julie Stein, the museum's executive director, championed this idea. "Because people would ask, ‘why do you have 16 million objects? What do you do with them, why do you have them?’”

When she gave behind-the-scenes tours of the old building, she says, guests would express surprise at all that was there and what went on with it. She wanted to show more people what happens on a daily basis with artifacts that include everything from specimens of rare plants and animals to baskets, weavings and millions of other culturally significant artifacts.  

“We’re a state museum," Stein said. "If we’re going to ask the people from the state of Washington to support us, then we have an obligation to tell them what we’re doing with these objects.”

The project cost for the New Burke was estimated at $99 million; the museum says it raised over $106 million. Additional funds were used to cover things such as an expanded exhibits budget. 

While the objects in the Burke are not all part of exhibits in the galleries, Stein says, the collection the staff cares for is meant to help people answer current and future questions about natural and cultural history.

During a media preview day on Tuesday, workers carefully vacuumed cedar baskets on one floor. On one end of another, scientists prepared the vertebrae of dinosaurs. On the other end of the same floor, a botanist pressed recently collected specimens for the museum’s Herbarium. Another floor showed technicians in a wet lab washing and sifting sediment in search of small animal remains.  

The museum plans to make staff accessible on weekends, by opening up their work spaces on a rotating basis, so they can take questions from the public. Staff who need to work undistracted can retreat to spaces set back from the glass panels.

There also are hopes to regularly bring in artists and artisans, so people can watch while they create contemporary objects. Tuesday’s preview featured Al Charles Jr., a carver from the Lower Elwha tribe, who has several pieces in the Burke’s art collection. He demonstrated his carving on a commissioned piece he is working on, depicting a large orca fin. The workshop space he used is across from a large glass wall, where visitors can see how hundreds of stored artifacts fill rows of drawers and shelves.  

“I think it’s great,” Charles said. “You start getting a scope of the sheer numbers of what’s inside of a museum — what you see on the walls and hanging in the shelves is nothing, compared to what they have in the back.”

And Charles says he appreciates how the Burke also acts as a caretaker and respects tribal requests not to display certain artifacts. Among these is a fabled Egyptian mummy, imported by the museum’s founders in 1902. Museum staff say they keep it in storage out of respect for cultures that object to the display of human remains.

The Burke was founded in 1885, Washington state's first museum. It is housed on the campus of the University of Washington and all 13 of its curators are faculty members at UW.

The New Burke, which is 66 percent larger than the old building, opens to the public on Oct. 12.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to