Where can you peer up at an ancient mastodon skeleton? Watch paleontologists examine a 60-million-year-old, T-Rex dinosaur skull? Admire a vintage, Coast Salish whaler’s hat and enjoy frybread at a Native American-themed café?
The new Burke Museum opened Oct. 16 to offer such experiences — designed to engage as well as educate visitors. It is indeed a new kind of natural history museum. Here you see active research in progress: scientists, researchers and volunteers working behind glass-walled labs on each floor.
You also view extensive collections of flora, fauna, rocks and fossils. Kids will thrill to all the dinosaur skeletons and depictions. Adults will appreciate the extensive vintage collections of artifacts from Coast Salish and Columbia River Basin tribes, plus many other historic, cultural and environmental exhibits.
The Burke Museum is home to more than 16 million objects. It is Washington state’s oldest public museum, begun in 1885 by the Young Naturalists. This group of visionary teenagers started collecting local plants, mammals, insects, plants, rocks and shells in 1879. Initially Charles L. Denny, son of Seattle founders Arthur and Mary Denny, hosted Young Naturalists’ meetings in his parents’ home.
Then their expanding collection moved into the Hall of the Young Naturalists, built in 1885 on Territorial University property. Next, the group sought to make it the Washington State Museum to ensure their collections would be a public resource for generations to come. This official designation was granted in 1899, the year Washington progressed from territory to statehood.
The name was changed to the Burke Museum in 1962 in recognition of a substantial bequest honoring Judge Thomas Burke (1849–1925) and his wife, Caroline McGilvra Burke. They were among the earliest collectors of Northwest Native art.
In recent years, the old Burke Museum had outgrown its venerable building on the University of Washington campus. It closed at the end of 2018 as the new, much larger building was constructed.
Now the new facility continues its mission of preserving and exhibiting historical artifacts, objects and documents – while showcasing its active research efforts. The museum also serves as a collections center for animal DNA and maintains important specimens to help scientists identify how populations change over time.
On the first floor, you first encounter the Culture is Living Gallery. See how objects embody the knowledge and stories of the people who made them. Down the corridor, look into the glass-walled Contemporary Culture Workroom, where collections care, community consultation and research take place.
Then explore the Northwest Native Art Gallery from an impressive totem pole to Tlingit Chilkat blanket and Coast Salish baskets. The museum acquired more than 1,900 Northwest Coast/Southeast Alaska artifacts and 20,000 Columbia River Basin artifacts following the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on the UW campus. Check the adjacent Artist Studio to see if an artisan is actively creating or woodcarving.
The second floor features the Amazing Life Gallery, where you learn how 8.7 million species have evolved on our planet across time and continents. Here are also several large biology workrooms and labs, all with huge windows to let you watch whatever the researchers are currently doing.
You might see animal specimens – from tiny rodents to big carnivores – being prepared or cataloged. Or paleontologists and volunteers working on that 20,000-year-old mammoth tusk discovered in a 2014 excavation site at South Lake Union.
Look for signs along the windows that tell you what you’re seeing. Next to a huge vertebra from the 60-million-year-old, T-Rex dinosaur, a hand-written sign read: “This is a cervical (neck) vertebra from the Tufts-Love T-Rex. It took over 1 year to clean out of rock. (The skull took 3 years!)”
On the third floor, you encounter the fascinating Fossils Uncovered Gallery – discover how fossils reveal evidence of Earth’s transformation over the millennia. Also here are archeology workrooms and paleontology labs, where you can watch collections care, research and fossil preparation.
Throughout the new museum are educational play areas for kids, making it a great place to bring the entire family.
Adjacent to the museum entrance is the Off the Rez Café, the first brick-and-mortar location of the local, highly popular Off the Rez food truck. You can sample fry bread, Indian tacos made with it, and other Native foods before or after visiting the museum.
The Burke Museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 8 p.m. on the First Thursday event each month, when it is also free. Visit the website for regular admission costs, directions and parking information. Advance timed-entry tickets can be purchased online.
4300 15th Ave. N.E.
Seattle, WA, 98105
— By Julie Gangler
Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.