The new Burke Museum brings history and culture out into the open
The Burke Museum, a natural history museum on the University of Washington (UW) campus, opened the doors to its new facility October 12. In the 113,000-square-foot facility designed by Olson Kundig, the 130-year-old natural history museum hopes to show off more of its massive collection of fossils, artifacts, and American Indian artâwhich, until now, has been filed away in closed-off spacesâto the public.
The culmination of a decade of planning, the new building is designed to bring all of its work together by integrating the museumâs research and preservation efforts into the visitor experience. Previously, visitors couldnât see the scientists behind the scenes researching, cleaning, and restoring items. With the new facility, glass panes between public and behind-the-scenes spaces and more versatile storage bring the full collection out of dark closets and into the light.
Over the past century and change, the Burke has bounced around between less-than-ideal facilities, inheriting previous buildings or settling for smaller facilities. After the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exhibition, the Burke, then the Washington State Museum, it shifted its exhibits and collections between various UW buildings, many that were leaky or bug-infested. In the late 1950s, its home at the time was condemned.
Its most recent facility was custom-built in 1962, but was smaller than ideal, so the museum quickly outgrew the space as its massive collection grew. It also lacked climate control to keep its artifacts safe, equipment to analyze the collection, and visual cues to even let passers-by know itâs a museum.
The new building, completed with consultation from 29 local tribes and a Native American advisory committee, is in many ways designed to be the complete opposite of the previous building, which had gotten cramped and let in little natural light. Now, the museum is designed around 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.
âIt reads like a museum,â project architect Edward Lalonde told Curbed Seattle last year, as opposed to the âopaqueâ old Burke space. âPeople understand what theyâre approaching.â
From the lower-level entrance, a large whale skeleton floats above the stairs. Mark Stone, courtesy Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture
Fittingly for a natural history museum, the exterior is designed to work with the environment around it. A sloped roof just about matches 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. The shed-style roof was inspired by traditional Coast Salish dwelling.
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 âwill age naturally to a silver,â explained Lalonde last year. âThatâs important to us that the building ages well and it ages naturally.â
Building elements, like tall, skinny windows, are also meant to nod to fir and cedar.
âA major focus of the design is maximizing transparencyâlarge areas of glazing look in from the street and the interior experience to connect the Burke to the campus, landscape and city,â says Tom Kundig, principal and owner of Olson Kundig and principal on the project. âWe wanted visitors and the surrounding community to connect to the museumâs collections and artifacts, and engage with the process of scientific discovery in a true working museum.â
One of the biggest changes visitors will notice, though, is intentional space. Rather than shift between awkward dividers, small offices, and a basement, rooms are designed around exhibits and purpose.
Pictured in 2018, the Burkeâs T. rex skull sports googly eyes as a visual aid. Sarah Anne Lloyd
The Amazing Life exhibit shows how our earthâs ecosystem has functioned both in the past and today. Fossils Uncovered is the classic natural history museum fossil exhibit, with the only real dinosaur fossils on display in the state, including one of the Burkeâs most famous pieces, one of the best-preserved T. rex skulls in the world. The Northwest Native Art Gallery highlights cont