Julie Stein, Executive Director of the Burke Museum, and Wayne Parker, Host of the StoriesHere Podcast
Wayne: Greetings. This is Wayne Parker letting you know that something remarkable has happened on the north end of the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. A new museum is opening and it is unlike any other. A new $99 million building is completely replacing the old Museum, and not just a new building but a new way for people to experience a museum.
Here’s Dr. Julie Stein, Executive Director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture to tell us about the new Museum and how this came about. And then after this podcast find out more at burkemuseum.org.
Julie: Well, the New Burke is I believe something different from most museums if not all museums, and that we truly, truly tried to turn this museum inside out.
There’s a story I tell about the Old Burke. The Old Burke was right adjacent to us and it was a fairly traditional museum that had exhibits about dinosaurs and people of the Pacific. There were cases with objects and labels and you could read a little bit on the label about whatever it was the Curator was trying to tell you.
But when you were done looking at those exhibits you would leave. Maybe you’d buy something at the shop or the cafe, but you would leave and not understand that there were many other things at the Burke behind the walls that you couldn’t see. And I used to give people tours of the Burke. And I would take them downstairs to the basement and there were, down there, cases and cases of objects in archaeology and paleontology, open shelving with big mammoth bones and dinosaur bones and eggs of dinosaurs. And while you were walking along from archaeological cases you’d stop and see a room full of students and employees, staff, undergrads and graduates.
They’d be working on a problem that somebody was trying to solve by looking at an object. And you’d continue walking down the hall and you go past offices with people who worked in our finance department or communications. And then by that time people’s mouths were hanging open and they’d say, “I had no idea that you had people in here, that they had jobs, that they were working on collections, that you had collections, that there were this many objects”.
And then we would go upstairs to the Culture section and they’d see 9,000 baskets and masks and all kinds of beaded clothing and footwear from all over the Pacific. And then birds and then mammals.
And you’re getting my point here. By the end of a tour, which usually lasted an hour, sometimes I couldn’t get people out of there for an hour and a half!
They were just overwhelmed with all the information and all of the interesting, difficult issues that people were using the collections to try to address. And it was so clear to me after doing this for 10 years that the new museum had to give that experience to every single visitor.
Wayne: That’s Julie Stein, Executive Director of the Burke Museum, talking about a new approach to the museum experience.
Her comments really resonate with me since that kind of guided tour experience that she described was our motivation for launching this StoriesHere Podcast.
And imagine moving millions of items from one building to another! Let’s hear that story now.
Julie: It’s true. We took possession of the New Burke Museum, which is a new building adjacent to the old Burke Museum.
We took possession of it in May of 2018, and we couldn’t move anything in before the fire department gave us permission. We started moving like crazy and the last object came over on the last day of February in 2019, so that I think is just roughly about nine months. So we thought of it like we were pregnant!
Wayne: I want to hear, of course, a lot more about the New Burke. First, I did want to ask about your interest in this, and what sparked that interest. You went off to college in archaeology and geology, and what was the original interest in that?
Julie: As a child, I was one of those kids who was always looking down.
I have two sons. One of them looks down and finds money and various things. The other one looks up and is very interested in advertising and graffiti. So I think there are people who just look down and others who look up. I was very interested in what was in the ground. At the time the Leakey’s were finding very early hominid fossils in East Africa, and I thought that was the coolest thing possible.
I mistakenly thought they were archaeologists. And so I said that I wanted to learn more about archaeology and when I went to college, I was surprised there was a class you could take and you could go in the field and excavate. Before I did go on my very first field school for archaeology, I took a geology class and actually that is the thing that I truly loved. Learning about the landscape and how rivers move sediment, how mountains are created.
But geologists tend to work in small groups. One person or two people go and tramp around and study the rocks, where archaeologists work in large groups. They go to one particular place. They stay there for a long time. They try to stay alive. They try not to kill each other!
And they try to get a lot of really hard work done. And it turns out I really love working in large groups. I love working in teams trying to solve a seemingly impossible problem, working under less than favorable conditions and working together and getting people to work together.
So I took my love of geology and applied it to archaeology and didn’t realize at the time there was a sub-discipline of archaeology called geo-archaeology and I was one of the first practitioners of that sub-discipline. It’s when you spend more of your attention studying the sediment and dirt and soil that’s encasing the artifacts that people drop in the ground and you study how they got buried, not the objects themselves, and the landscape in which the people were living.
So I spent my life working in groups and teams and studying the geology and teaching about archaeology. It’s not surprising I became interested in museums because archaeologists bring their artifacts. In my case, all my bags of sediment and dirt came back to laboratories and they eventually find their way into museums.
I was working with the Burke Museum when I was doing my excavations and then I became the Curator of Archaeology, which was funny because I don’t know anything about artifacts. But it’s really just figuring out how to arrange them and make them available for people who are asking questions about them. And after that, it’s once again you’re working with a large team of people trying to get toward a goal. A seemingly impossible goal of having intellectual control over million objects in the case of archaeology. And then somehow or other I found myself applying to be the Director of the Museum. And I was selected and offered the opportunity to lead this wonderful institution.
Wayne: We talked about all the time-traveling the museum does, and your different disciplines. And we just went back to visit your early inspiration for doing this and ‘looking down’. And certainly if you look at the Museum, there’s this very unique story about the origins of it coming from the Young Naturalist Society. Is that right? So I had a couple of questions about that group. Do you feel some kinship with them, with those high school students who were interested in this. And if you could talk to them today, if you could travel back. What do you think that conversation would be like?
Julie: The Young Naturalists were the teenage children of the white settlers that first arrived here in Seattle and they were according to their writings, they were horrified by how quickly the landscape was being changed by the settling and commerce, development and building of the white settlers. They they saw the Native Americans being pushed off the landscape and the water.
And the trees and plants being altered and species were disappearing. They decided that they should create this club so that they could document everything that was here before it disappeared and they had no idea what they were doing. But thankfully the University, what was then the precursor of the University of Washington, we weren’t a state yet, helped.
So it was the territorial University. They hired a naturalist and this naturalist. His name is ‘Bug’ Johnson. That’s one of my favorite facts, but little ‘Bug’ taught them how to collect specimens how to look up in books what they’re likely genus was, if it’s a new species you have to communicate with the big museums in the East. The American Museum, the Field Museum, the Smithsonian.
Many of the new species that they named and they named them many of them for themselves. But the type specimen of those species are now in those other museums in the East. Museums have to count the number of types they have as a way of saying how what a great museum you are course. Of course ours are at the American Museum or Smithsonian or the Field Museum.
So this these youngsters grew up and they became the capitalists and politicians and leaders of the then completely white Seattle. And they care deeply about their collection and about the University of Washington and went to the state legislature and made legislation to call their collection the State Museum of Natural History and Culture.
So the Burke was born in 1899 when the Legislature passed the legislation to designate us the Washington State Museum. However, they had already been collecting since 1885. There were women involved in this club as they met every Saturday night and there are some wonderful photographs of them out collecting bugs and butterflies and moths with ‘Bug’ Johnson.
It is an inspiring story. I think one of the interesting things is that today in Seattle there is a very large increase in our growth. People moving into Seattle due to the various software companies. Amazon being the biggest but Microsoft is also another one and people are using exactly the same language that the young naturalists used. Things are changing so fast, the landscape is changing, the trees are being cut down things are disappearing and I hear that language in the newspapers and I say wow, you guys could be the Young Naturalists.
Wayne: I haven’t heard an origin story for a museum quite like that. And you mentioned the women that were involved and it’s also surprising to read that Clara Wilt was the very first graduate of the University of Washington. Not the first woman graduate, the first graduate.
Julie: Yes, and the Burke’s history is very closely tied to the University’s history.
Wayne: And then you’ve carried that forward with the women in science programs and lots of STEM programs. Lots of other things like that, right?
Julie: Yes, one of our most popular programs is girls in science.
There is a middle school program and a high school program for girls that are interested in science. What does it mean to be a scientist? They visit the University of Washington laboratories where women are doing the research. They learn the scientific method and how to work together. What does it mean to ask a question and search for the answer?
Wayne: So in addition to the work that the Museum’s doing in in that area, I know you had talked before about the young naturalist being the families of the first White settlers, but the museum has also has a long tradition of involvement and support of the Native voices. And why don’t you tell me about the museum and how and it’s interrelated or how it relates to the Native community, the Native culture and the history here.
Julie: So the Burke Museum does have a very strong relationship with the Native Americans of the State of Washington and in the Northwest coast region. That relationship comes from a series of individuals who have worked at the Burke who care deeply about those indigenous people and their culture.
Erna Gunther was Director for 30 years, I believe from 1930 to 1960. She studied the Indigenous peoples’ use of plants. She wrote a book about ethnobotany. She had a television show and she started our ‘Burke in a Box’ program where objects are sent across the state to school-aged children to the classroom, with curriculum included in the Box.
Erna was the first. Another curator that’s famous for having close ties with native peoples is Bill Holm. Bill is not a native himself, nor was Erna Gunther, but he is an artist and incredible carver and painter. He was very interested in the art traditions of the Northwest. The United States and Canadian government had really tried hard to eliminate the native cultures interest in and knowledge of their Traditions. There are Traditions ceremonies and there was a fear that the older generation if they passed on, the younger generation would not know the incredible knowledge and technical expertise they had.
And Bill befriended many of these people and their children and was so enthusiastic about what they were doing that the artists themselves, the indigenous artists, started teaching Bill how to do this. And Bill then through his enthusiasm got other people, other Native Americans, interested in it. He started at Camp here in the Northwest called Camp Nor’wester. It is still going today. Where part of the camp experience is learning how to paint and to carve. So Bill was the curator here for years. He retired, I believe it was in the 80s that he retired, and his student took over as the curator of Northwest Native Art. And she just retired and her student now is the curator of Northwest Native Art.
So we have a strong tradition of inviting artists to come to the Burke to see and examine the objects that we have here so that the artist can be inspired to create whatever is in their imagination. But also many people come to retro-engineer the way of building, making and manufacturing some of these objects. The technical expertise is unbelievable.
And when you examine closely and try to make another object that’s identical to it. It is shocking how brilliant their innovations were and how that could have been lost without those indigenous people remembering those traditions and passing them on, and being interested in coming to the Burke and comparing what they know.
Wayne: You describe the surprise that people find when they look at that comparison. I wonder if there is any out of all of the interactions that you’ve had, or heard comments from visitors, if there were any that came to mind?
Julie: Well, one of the best stories is really not mine to tell but rather our curator of Native American Anthropology.
His name is Sven Haakanson. He himself is an Alutiiq, a member of the Alutiiq group in Alaska and they are boaters. He is a very interested in water and water craft. He made, from a model, a boat that had been forgotten. And how to make it and brought that knowledge back to his community. they had not seen one of these boats and no one knew how to make it for decades and decades and everyone who’s alive had forgotten how to build them.
The other thing is he just recently made a kayak we’re going to have in one of the new exhibits. It’s a beautiful example of an old kayak with walrus skin covering on it and he made a, with the help of community members, a new one without the skin on it so you could see how the inside of the kayak is made.
And for me the thing that was so surprising was that everything is tied together with sinew or twine or in this case, whatever kind of lashing you want to use. But I said, I just assumed you would use nails because I never thought about it. That’s how I thought you put ships together. And the answer of course is that if you have a craft that has to flex with the wave that is coming from the front and then the side and then the back and you want it to not break.
Tying all pieces together gives it a flexibility that is unbelievably more sturdy and long-lasting and isn’t that an incredible revelation? It was to me. Of course that makes sense.
Wayne: I love that story about the rediscovery of an ancient canoe-making technique. Again, that’s Julie Stein, Executive Director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.
And now you can hear more about what a visit to the New Burke will be like. You can hear her excitement and perhaps picture yourself there.
Thank you for listening. This is Wayne Parker with the StoriesHere Podcast.
Julie: From the minute you come in you see that we have collections, you see that there are cases and drawers and racks that have objects in them.
You may not see every object, but you can see a vast room floor after floor after floor of these objects. And then the next question is, why do you have these things? And what do you do with them? So now adjacent to every collection is a work room where the people are actually doing work on the collections. And there are white boards that explain what are the people doing and our people working there seven days a week and they’ll be working on cultural objects.
They’ll be working on biological organisms. Shells and birds and mammals and putting some specimens have to be stored in alcohol and they’ll be putting them in jars of alcohol and the visitors going to have so many questions. What do they do? That we are planning to have volunteers and paid staff on the outside of these fast windows that you look into addressing people’s questions and explaining what is going on.
Then there are people on the other side of the glass in the workroom. Whose job it is to be sure that there is work scheduled every day of the week.
So to answer your question about what would an average visit to the New Burke Museum look like, I think you will walk in the front door and see magnificent, beautiful objects that you expect to find in a museum.
We have a whale skeleton hanging from the grand atrium, as well as amazing Northwest contemporary art. But suddenly you find yourself looking into a vast collection and there’s going to be people who are cleaning a basket or writing into a database describing what’s in that box.
And upstairs you may see somebody that’s preparing a bird that has been salvaged or collected and turning it into a study skin. Why do you need study skins? What do people do with genetic resources and tissue collections? Why do you put something in alcohol?
Then up in paleontology we have a room full of people who are grinding the rock off of fossil bone. And where did they find those? How do they know when to stop? What’s the rock? What’s a bone? And then in archaeology you have hundreds of bags full of animal bone and chips of tools that could be a thousand, to ten thousand years old. How do you organize them?
Who studies them? What kinds of questions are they asking and all of these are adjacent to very traditional galleries that have cases and objects. We’re trying to juxtapose the traditional expected museum experience of a gallery next to real live people doing real live work.
Wayne: I wanted to say thank you and congratulations on realizing that vision. Because you had something that is, in my mind, very essential and very true. It rings true with my experience in museums, but the energy and the commitment over that many years to act on it and make it a reality is so exciting.
And I know you’ve been working so hard. I’m curious if you have ever time to reflect on that, because what you’re doing, so few directors have the opportunity, created for themselves and the museum, the opportunity to have a new building. Few museums and Directors in the world every have that opportunity. Do you ever have a chance to sit down and just reflect on this moment?
Julie: I just am the luckiest person in the world. First of all I did get the opportunity. And I partnered with an amazing architect Tom Kundig, is our architect. He believed in our vision and he created a building that allows us to fulfill this dream. I could not have designed this building. He did such an amazing job of turning a vision into bricks and mortar and that was just thrilling to work with him. It’s been almost 10 years that it’s taken to realize this vision and it wasn’t always what it is now. We’ve had a lot of strategic plans and a lot of help from my museum colleagues. To hone this vision to what it is today, but you are right it is I do think that many museums have a see-through experience, especially fossil preparation. Almost every natural history museum shows you a place where people are actually working on fossils. That was inspired by La Brea Tar Pits, the first to do that.
But to do it in every single corner of the museum and not let people hide. The first question people always ask me was what does your staff think about this? Are they going to want to work in front of the public? And we built a prototype in the old Museum and everybody had to practice they had to sit there and work in front of the public and we had to figure out what kind of questions the public had.
What what kind of work worked well? We put up really professionally printed panels on this prototype and the visitors liked the little white boards that people wrote on every morning. Funky little pictures of what they were doing. So, you know, we got rid of the professional graphics.
I mean, it’s the whiteboards are what we’re using now. So we learned a lot and mostly we learned that it’s really quite inspiring to work in front of the visitor.
Wayne: Julie, I ran across something on your website about why you do all of this and and part of it said:
“Tell the story of life on Earth. Every Discovery sheds new light on the past and helps us better anticipate the future”. That struck a chord with me because it said something in a way that perhaps intrinsically I knew but I didn’t really have the words for it and I thought better anticipate the future was a great way of expressing certainly one of the reasons why you do this work,
Julie: Well, it is true. That phrase sound so intentional that we know what the future is going to bring. The real inspiration for me is when somebody calls out of the blue and says do you have tissue from a dolphin and a hippo? We’re doing research on how to regenerate human skin. After a burn from a burn victim and both hippos and dolphins live in incredibly bacteria rich environments. And yet when they get injured, they don’t get infections so their skin heals incredibly quickly and what is it about those two animals that maybe can apply to a human problem.
And yeah, we did we had the genetic tissue samples and sent it to them. I have no idea whether that medical research went anywhere, but just imagine we could do with our objects here. We have no idea what questions people are going to ask in the future and it’s thrilling to be able to participate in solving problems.
Part of the fun of this job is that I am surrounded by 13 curators that are experts and you can be giving a tour and somebody tells you what they’re doing and I always say oh my God, I didn’t know you were doing that!
Wayne: And this big collection that you have of spread wings of birds. It says consulted by wildlife artists and artists illustrating field guides a lot. Is that correct?
Julie: That is correct. The major field guides for bird identification. Think about how hard it is to draw a bird that is flying away from you all the time and the spread wings show every single feather and so you can use a photograph of a bird in the position you’re trying to paint. But you can get the details from the spread wing.
It also tells you the story of how the bird, the strategy for the bird to replace its feathers. We never thought about birds aren’t born with one set of feathers. They replace them constantly and some birds just go to a safe place, clap down and lose all their feathers all at once and replace them.
And others replace them one at a time. Do you replace your feathers before you mate? So you have a really fancy good-looking set of feathers, or do you mate and then lose your feathers, so every species has a different strategy.
Wayne: The Burke Museum can be reached at Burke Museum dot-org. It’s an amazing transition and transformation of one of the country’s leading natural history and culture museums. It’s on the campus the University of Washington right at the entrance there. So you want to find out about this new Museum and also find ways to support, to donate and contribute in other ways.
Julie, so two things, Is there anything else you wanted to say about how people can support the museum, or are there any stories or anything else that you’d like to convey?
Julie: Thank you. Our website is really I think lovely and there are ways to become a member. There is an opportunity to become an Inaugural Member. This is the first year of membership and I think people are going to want to come back and see what’s happening in these laboratories. So they will want to come back again and again. It’s not a museum that you will want to come to once.
Wayne: Our thanks to Julie Stein for her time today. She’s the Executive director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and a special thanks to all the staff members, donors, volunteers and community leaders who have made the New Burke possible.
Learn more at burkemuseum.org. This is Wayne Parker, and thank you for listening to this episode of the StoriesHere podcast.
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