Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

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The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
Official logo of The Burke Museum
Founded: 1885[1]
Director: Dr. Julie Stein (2005–present)

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is a natural history museum in Seattle, Washington, in the United States. Founded in 1885, the museum is an official state museum and is located at the University of Washington campus at the intersection of NE 45th Street and 17th Avenue NE in Seattle's University District. It is the only major natural history museum in the Pacific Northwest and the state's oldest museum.

The Burke Museum's permanent collection numbers over 14 million artifacts and specimens,[2] including totem poles, gemstones, and dinosaur fossils.


The roots of the Burke Museum can be traced back to an amateur natural history club founded in the early 1880s, known as the Young Naturalists' Society. The YNS began collaborating with the Territorial University of Washington through natural science professor Orson Bennett Johnson. Johnson became an advocate for the professionalization of the society and helped them increase their understanding of natural history and refocus their efforts on collecting, educating, and displaying objects to and for the public. With Johnson's guidance, the group's membership, natural history collections, and ambitions grew, resulting in the creation of Seattle's first natural history museum at the Territorial University's downtown campus. Over the years, the YNS and their museum expanded their collections to include newly discovered marine specimens, and expanded their membership to include a number of women.

The original museum was shut down when the Territorial University moved north to become the University of Washington. Several members followed the school and organized an on-campus museum. In 1899, the Washington State Legislature named this new organization the Washington State Museum. Following this development, the Young Naturalists' Society was disbanded in 1904.

However, the new Washington State Museum continued to lack a permanent home for its collections until 1962, when the Burke's present building was constructed (designed by James Chiarelli). Funds for the structure came from a grant from the National Science Foundation and a bequest from the estate of Caroline McGilvra Burke. Following this gift, the museum was renamed in honor of Burke's late husband Judge Thomas Burke.


According to its website, "The Burke Museum is dedicated to creating a better understanding of the world and our place in it. The museum is responsible for Washington State collections of natural and culture heritage, and for sharing the knowledge that makes them meaningful. The Burke welcomes a broad and diverse audience and provides a community gathering place that nurtures life-long learning and encourages respect, responsibility, and reflection."


Totem poles outside the Burke Museum

The museum houses more than 12 million artifacts and specimens in its anthropology, biology, and geology research divisions. Highlights include:

The museum states that its collection of Northwest Coast ethnographic material is the fifth largest in the world, including some 10,000 objects, among which are "the important early Swan, Eells, Emmons, and Waters collections, as well as the unmatched Blackman-Hall and Ottenberg contemporary silkscreen print collections, and the Steinman contemporary Northwest Coast sculpture collection."[3] The muse's Northwest Coast image research database includes "the Holm/Wright collection of images of Northwest Coast art from 200 museums and private collections (25,000 images), the Harris collection of Northwest Coast silver jewelry images (6,000 images), and de Menil photographs of Northwest Coast totem poles (1,000 images), as well as the George MacDonald Archive of historical Northwest Coast photographs."[3]

The museum's Alaskan Arctic collection includes 6,500 pieces, including "basketry, kayaks, tools, and contemporary carvings," while the collection for Western Sub-arctic, Plateau, Plains, Great Lakes, and Southwest cultures includes "baskets, beadwork, parfleches, weavings, and pottery."[3] The museum's Pacific Rim collections has almost 15,000 items from Asia and the Pacific, among which are "kava bowls, porcelain, dance masks, and samurai armor."[3]

  • The world's largest collection of spread bird wings (a technique that Burke pioneered) [4]
  • The world's second largest collection of frozen bird tissues for genetic research [4]
  • The fourth largest ichthyology collection this side of the Mississippi[5]
  • The fifth largest collection of Native American Art in the United States[1]
  • One of the largest collections of Northwest plants and fungi[6]
  • Over one million archaeological artifacts, including extensive collections from Washington state sites around Puget Sound and the Columbia River[7]
  • First naturalist museum west of the Mississippi River[1]


Long-term exhibits[edit]

The Burke Museum currently displays three long-term exhibits: "Life and Times of Washington State," "Pacific Voices," and "Treasures of the Burke." "Life and Times of Washington State" is a natural history exhibit on the 545-million-year evolution of the Northwest region. Features of this exhibit include large-scale fossils such as an allosaurus skeleton cast and the giant ground sloth fossil found during the construction of Sea-Tac International Airport. There are also displays that explain the geologic history of the area and its influence on the terrain and climate.

"Pacific Voices" is a cultural exhibit that tells the stories or traditions of 19 different Native American and Pacific Rim cultures through art, artifacts, ceremonial objects, and audio/visual documentaries. Also, Kennewick man is held here while his ownership is debated

Temporary exhibits[edit]

The Burke also hosts a schedule of changing exhibits throughout the year in its temporary galleries. These changing exhibits include traveling exhibits organized by other institutions and original exhibits curated by Burke staff.

Current exhibits[edit]

  • "Elwha: A River Reborn (Nov. 23, 2013 – Mar. 9, 2014)

Upcoming exhibits[edit]

  • "International Conservation Photography Awards"
  • "Weaving Heritage: Textile Masterpieces from the Burke Collection"

Previous exhibits (since November 2006)[edit]

  • Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition: Indigenous Voices Reply
  • Wondrous Cold: An Antarctic Journey
  • Coffee: The World in Your Cup
  • The Last Polar Bear: Facing the Truth of a Warming World
  • Arctic Wings: Birds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
  • The Place Called Home
  • Peoples of the Plateau: The Indian Photographs of Lee Moorhouse, 1898-1915
  • Vanished Kingdoms
  • In the Spirit of the Ancestors
  • Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway (December 19, 2009 - May 31, 2010)[8]

Museum governance[edit]

Governing body[edit]

The museum is administered through the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences;[9] the University of Washington Board of Regents serves as the museum's governing body.


The Burke Museum Association (BMA) is an organization made up of the Burke's Board of Trustees and an advisory council. Their mission is to actively support the Burke Museum by increasing public visibility, raising public and private funds to support programming and future expansion, and providing strong ties to the community.

Funding Information[edit]

A combination of Washington state funds, endowment, earned income, grants, and individual contributions constitutes an annual budget of $5 million.[2]


  1. ^ a b c Heim, Joe (November 13, 1997). "History Lessons -- Burke Museum Of Natural History And Culture -- Refurbished Museum Features Fossils, Fauna, Flora". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Berger, Knute (February 17, 2011). "In the belly of the Burke Museum". Crosscut.com. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d Ethnology Collections Database: About the collection." Burke Museum.
  4. ^ a b Ornithology - Burke Museum
  5. ^ "Ichthyology at the Burke". University of Washington. Retrieved 18 August 2012. 
  6. ^ "UW Herbarium at the Burke". University of Washington. Retrieved 18 August 2012. 
  7. ^ "Archaeology Collections". University of Washington. Retrieved 18 August 2012. 
  8. ^ Past Exhibits
  9. ^ King, Marsha (May 18, 1996). "Growing Pains -- The Burke Museum Wants To Show Off More Goodies In Bigger Digs Downtown". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 47°39′39.5″N 122°18′35.2″W / 47.660972°N 122.309778°W / 47.660972; -122.309778