By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
What was the oldest museum in the state will now be the newest.
On Oct. 12, after almost a year of being closed for construction, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, located on the University of Washington (UW) campus, will re-open to the public in a new building. While this closure has felt long to the staff at the Burke, who are eager to re-engage with visitors, it is a short period compared to the over 10-year long dream of Burke Director Dr. Julie K. Stein, architect Tom Kundig, Burke employees, and the many in the community who collaborated on the project.
The Burke represents the state of Washington and those who live in it. This includes not only indigenous communities, but others whose homelands are located along the Pacific Rim. The Burke houses a fairly large Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) collection, about 100,000 pieces in total. What is important to the mission of the Burke is recognizing that cultures do not die—they are ongoing. The Burke works hard to maintain relationships with the people of the state, and throughout Asia and the Pacific, while preserving its collection for posterity and also for right now.
The problem with the old Burke was that it was not capable of fulfilling this mission. The original Burke was never built to be a museum. It had no climate control (not even air conditioning) and re-assembling exhibits in light of updated material was difficult. Spaces were restrictive and guests had no idea of the many activities taking place inside without working there or being granted a private tour.
Now, the layout is open. Visitors will be able to look through enormous glass panes, directly into the Burke workrooms, labs, and collections storage areas.
They will have a better sense of what museums really do. Gallery spaces are flexible, able to adapt to new exhibits or in the case of new information. There will be an artist’s space, where local artists using pieces in the Burke collection for inspiration can create new pieces in the ongoing artistic cycle of their cultures; and a café, Off the Rez, previously the well-known food truck, now with its first brick-and-mortar.
Even the location of the old Burke was less than ideal, dominated by the parking lot more than the building. The new Burke flips this layout entirely. The old building has been demolished and a new one, with an exterior designed to call to mind the structures of the Coast Salish peoples, and our state’s towering pine trees, stands prominently along 15th Avenue, with its main entrance near 43rd Avenue. Landscaping will be comprised entirely of plants found in Washington. A two-minute walk from the closest bus stop, guests will be inside the soaring walls of the Grand Atrium, where a giant mastodon skeleton, a rare Baird’s beaked whale skeleton, and a Coast Salish piece called “The Weaver’s Welcome” awaits.
The new Burke will also be just moments away from a soon-to-be-added light rail station. There is really no way you can miss it.
The Burke predicts that in its new space, it will be able to double the number of K-12 students it can accommodate. And that is really what the Burke is all about.
Outreach. Connections. Relationships. Without these, the Burke would not be where it is today, the caretaker of over 16 million pieces, many of which have been donated by the community. In addition to working closely with the indigenous community, the Burke has formed close ties with AAPIs here and abroad. As curator of the Asian and Oceanic collection, Dr. Holly Barker explains the Burke relies upon those who know their cultures best to provide leadership when it comes to the items in the collections.
“It is really good for our collections, to open them up to the public because [of] the amount of information and knowledge and stories that come from the vast public when they get to see the pieces,” says Barker. “We are just the stewards that are responsible for caretaking, but there is so much knowledge about the pieces…that is in the greater community.” Once an item enters the collection, Barker contacts related community members for ideas on how to best put the item forward. The Burke is respectful of the meaning held within what we as people create, even more so when those items are part of colonization and the violence therein.
Barker speaks, for instance, of a day of mourning, March 1, the day the United States detonated a nuclear weapon in the Marshall Islands. Today, because of the radiation still present at the site, Marshall Islanders cannot access ancestral lands.
But at the Burke, on that day, they can see and touch objects from those lands.
“I think there’s a healing that takes place from being able to touch materials from lands that people can no longer live on, to hold something made by great grandmothers, or ancestors, and to feel their strength,” says Barker. An entire community, or one person, can come to the Burke with a request, and the Burke will do its best to fulfil the request.
Interns, work studies, artists, and traveling researchers all fill the rooms of the Burke alongside permanent staff. As a part of the UW, the Burke supports its students and solicits ideas from them, even about acquisitions. There is the story of the UW softball team that, while in Australia, picked out a print by a contemporary Torres Strait artist to add to the collection. The students had to explain why they felt the piece was interesting.
A single object or many together can hold so much meaning. Those who made the object have much to gain by being in its presence—but so too do others that have much to learn. Sharing is important. In the new Burke, the Culture Is Living gallery will combine pieces from Asia and the Pacific to demonstrate common themes that run through all of our lives, at the same time, as it will showcase the diversity and brilliance of each particular represented culture. In this gallery, there will be a collection of boats (the Burke is famous for its boat collection) that will include a Hmong woven boat. This boat was chosen by local Hmong as representative of those the Hmong used to flee persecution after the Vietnam War. It will be accompanied by a Hmong jacket upon which the name embroidered on the back is turned inside out — a way that those escaping protected their identities. Alongside, just on the next wall, will be a Taiwanese flying fish catching boat, rescued by its donor from an Ivar’s where it had been collecting dust, and newly outfitted with missing culturally appropriate elements made by contemporary Tao artists.
These are just a few of the stories that the new Burke is waiting to tell you.
The new Burke grand opening will be held on Oct. 12–14, with a member and donor preview on Oct. 11. Tickets are on sale at burkemuseum.org.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.