By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Burke Museum celebrated its grand opening in October with a new building. On its opening day, I was there, searching for my favorite pieces. What brings the museum to life? Nothing seemed to impress me much in my student days, decades ago. One reason was its limited space in the old building, which couldn’t show what the museum was all about. Now 66 percent bigger, there are powerful displays and stories to tell, from your heritage and mine. Here are some of those pieces, which brought me chills as well as joy.
The Hmong survival boat
“What is this for, this big (woven) basket?” I asked during my visit.
“This is a boat,” replied Andrea Godinez, Burke’s public relations director. This was the boat Hmong and Vietnamese used to escape persecution during the Vietnam War, to migrate to America. The boat looks too tiny and dangerous to be employed as a mode of transportation across an ocean with rocking waves as tall as skyscrapers! Actually, it revealed creativity on the part of the boat makers. If they couldn’t afford to pay for a regular boat, they invented their own with their cultural skills and know-how. A remarkable feat.
When I went back to the office and showed a photo to Northwest Asian Weekly layout editor Han, who was from Vietnam originally, she immediately recognized it as a boat. Her face was overwhelmed with emotion.
“Where did you get this? That’s the boat Vietnamese rode to come to America.”
Imagine the horror boat people faced during their escape, how families got separated, how they fought death, hunger, cold, and sickness, how they struggled through rain and storms, how they comforted themselves, never giving up hope. The boat is a symbol of survival and a hard-fought battle to freedom—that one day they would land on the promised land, America. And they did.
When you are there, please examine the woven detail on the boat, which ensured no water could seep through, and there was even some storage space below.
You can also find other island cultures at Burke, including the Philippines and Asian Pacific Islanders.
The Lotus Shoes for bound feet
The pair of shoes reminded me of my late grandmother’s childhood. She was spared from foot binding in her village in the late 1910s. Girls wailed and sobbed as their mothers and maids forced their feet to be bound. It was a painful procedure. How disgusting it was to know that little girls in old China were being abused! At the time, if a woman had big feet, no man would marry her. Only maids had ugly big feet, my great grandmother would say. Small bound feet, would force all the growth of the girl from her feet to her hips, giving them big sexy hips. It literally stripped away the freedom of women because they couldn’t move freely with weak, undersized bound feet. After binding, women’s feet were deformed so badly that they couldn’t move quickly or walk long distances— they had to be carried around when they went outside their house.
Why my grandmother was spared was because she was in Zhongshan, the same county as Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the founding father of China. Her uneducated mother wanted to follow the customs. When everything was ready with scissors and cloth to bind my grandmother’s feet, her father arrived home just in time.
“Dr. Sun told us not to bind our daughters’ feet,” he said. “That’s barbaric and cruel. Modern China shouldn’t follow those traditional acts.”
You will find those pair of shoes at Burke.
Are they real dinosaurs?
If you were a Jurassic Park fan, you needn’t go far like we did for our kids. We took our sons to New York and Washington, D.C. to see dinosaurs. You can see them at Burke. All kinds of dinosaurs are impressively displayed as if they were alive. Dinosaurs fascinate me even to this day.
According to Godinez, some of them are all cast, while others are all real (skull, Thescelosaurus, and dino eggs).
Others are a combination of both real fossils and casts of certain bones to fill in missing pieces (Allosaurus).
It’s rare to find a complete skeleton of an entire dinosaur, so usually what you see in a gallery is a combination of both real and cast bones making up the display. Now, you can enjoy those big animals locally with your kids. You can stand next to them for photos.
Other big animals
If you have never seen the biggest bird on earth, you will find an ostrich in the museum. Whale skull and other parts of the body are also displayed. There are so many interesting things at Burke, you just need to spend time to go through the details. It might be too much to absorb all the objects at once. Why not go back there for future visits! Every first Thursday of the month is free to the public. If you are a University of Washington (UW) student, you can get in for free. Other students can get discounted tickets.
Non-conventional director’s room
Most museum executives have a formal and boring office. But Burke’s Executive Director Julie Stein’s room will blow you away. The room is inviting and non-conventional. It ignites conversations. Love it. Ask the museum staff to show you where it is. Located in the center of the museum on the top floor, it is a good spot to watch all the action around. Her room is hard to miss.
Talk about innovation, Burke has it. The looming tree is a great example. Is it a sculpture or an actual tree? You decide. It works for me. I appreciate the sight. It looks amazing in the museum center hanging from above.
See scientists at work
Located inside the UW, Burke is a research museum. An interactive museum, it’s fun to watch scientists at work through transparent glass. Burke has eight permanent staff paleontologists, in addition to volunteers, students, and visiting researchers. If you have questions, you can ask the researchers questions. The staff members will be glad to provide you with all types of information.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.