Burke Museum (Seattle)

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/30/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8468
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The Burke Museum, founded in 1885 by a group of teenage boys, is Washington's oldest museum. Since its inception, the museum has been part of the University of Washington, and has had various homes on campus. The museum is responsible for Washington state collections of natural history and cultural heritage.

Youthful Ambition

In December 1879, a group of young men formed a club as a way to further their education, as well as to have a bit of fun. At first they considered forming a chess club, but opted instead to establish an organization devoted to the study of natural history. A year later, the teenagers wrote their own constitution and by-laws and officially named their group the "Young Naturalists."

Founding members of the organization included Edmond Meany (1862-1935), J. O. Young, P. Brooks Randolph, and Charles Denny. Denny's father Arthur -- a founder of Seattle -- was then regent of the Territorial University, and allowed the boys to meet regularly in a back room at his home. The "Y.N.'s" wrote essays on local flora and fauna and sometimes held debates.  

The boys' interest in nature was heartfelt, but their lack of formal training was sometimes apparent. Member Walter Boardman once gave a talk about bats, which he described as "half quadruped and half bird and is neither one or the other; it is a kind of monster." Nevertheless, they persevered in their studies and soon began amassing a sizeable collection of insect, plant, and small animal specimens.

Housing the Collections  

In 1882, Orson "Bug" Johnson was named as the new professor of natural science at the University, and the boys struck up a friendship. Johnson had been a naturalist in Oregon, and brought a collection of 20,000 specimens with him to Seattle. It was Johnson who convinced the Y.N.'s to worry less about essays and debates, and to spend more of their efforts collecting specimens, with the goal of creating a public museum.

Within a year, the reformed Young Naturalists' Society (YNS) transformed the back room at Denny's home into a small museum, with a curator for each department. Johnson organized lectures for the young men, not just in natural history, but also in biology and geology. The group added more members and collections, and soon ran out of space.  

In 1885, the YNS entered an agreement with the university to lease land for a Naturalist's Hall on the university's downtown tract. They raised building funds by selling shares, and moved into their new home in the spring of 1886. By this time, Professor Johnson was elected as the group’s president, although he stepped down within a few years due to painful bouts of arthritis.

A State Museum  

In the 1890s, Edmond Meany returned to teach history at the university, after serving as a state representative. Still connected to the group that he founded years earlier, he led a revitalization campaign that brought in many new members to the YNS, including women. One new member was Trevor Kincaid, who was well known throughout the nation for his entomological collections.

In 1895, the University moved from downtown to its present location, which left the Hall of the Young Naturalists in limbo. Some of the collections stayed in the downtown building, but many of those used in teaching were transferred to the Administration Building (now Denny Hall), which the state legislature designated as the Washington State Museum in 1899.  

Five years later, the Young Naturalists decided to throw all their support behind this new museum. They voted to disband, and donated all their library and specimens to the state museum. By this time, many of the members were UW faculty, including Trevor Kincaid, Charles Hill, Henry Hindshaw, Henry Landes, and Edmond Meany.

A-Y-P Legacy  

The state museum went without a director until 1909, when Frank Stevens Hall was hired to oversee the collections. That same year, the campus was transformed into the fairgrounds for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition, for which many new buildings were constructed. By this time, the museum's collections had overflowed their space in the Administration Building, and filled part of Science Hall (now Parrington Hall).

When the fair ended, the California Building -- built to resemble a Spanish-style mission -- became the new home for the state museum. The university also gained an important new collection that was displayed at the fair: The Emmons Collection of Tlingit artifacts, still considered one of the museum's most prized possessions.  

As more specimens and collections were added, the museum began to outgrow the California Building, which had also started to leak. The decision was made to transfer to another A-Y-P leftover -- the Forestry Building, a gargantuan monstrosity that looked like a Greek Temple built by Paul Bunyan.

Director Frank Hall was concerned because this building was leaky too, and the unstripped logs used in its construction covered everything with a constant layer of bark dust. Soon after the collections were moved in, Hall discovered that the building was infested with bark beetles. Professor Trevor Kincaid, an entomologist, pointed out that a new heating system would kill all the beetles. That it did, but it also accelerated dry rot, and the building had to be closed in 1923.  

New Home, New Director

For the next few years, the museum’s collections went into storage or were dispersed amongst various University departments. In 1927, Suzzallo Library opened on campus, and the Washington State Museum moved into the library's old home – The Washington State Building, another A-Y-P remnant.  

Now that the museum had new lodgings, the University looked for a new director. The job was offered to Dr. Leslie Spier, an ex-UW Professor who was now teaching at the University of Oklahoma. Spier turned down the job, opting instead for fieldwork in the South Seas, but recommended his wife Erna, who accepted the offer and began work in the fall of 1929. The Spiers divorced a year later, and she resumed her maiden name, Gunther.

From the start, Gunther stressed the educational aspects of the museum. One of her first tasks was to create study kits that could be used in classrooms throughout the state. Traveling collections are still a part of the museum’s mission, and remain one of Gunther’s lasting legacies.  

She also believed that the museum should be a resource for all citizens, and not just students. Through her efforts, the museum became more prominent in the eyes of the public. She wrote many articles on how museums can and should be used, and gave talks throughout the region.

More Space Needed  

But although Gunther was a great teacher and communicator, her philosophy did not extend into the museum itself. Many visitors to the State Museum in mid-century remember it as a dark, cavernous place, stuffed to the ceilings with a hodgepodge of Indian artifacts, stuffed animals, dusty bones, and display cases full of dead bugs, plant specimens, and sea creatures.

By 1950, it was apparent that the museum still didn’t have enough space, and that the old building from the days of the A-Y-P was in serious disrepair. Gunther made many public statements about potential fire hazards, possible water damage, and potential building rot. She had hopes that the administration would build a new facility.  

Unfortunately, the University took her warnings too seriously and closed the building in 1957, before any plans for a new museum were in the works. With the collections once again in storage, money became available from the State Legislature, but not enough to construct a building of the size that Gunther wanted. More funds would have to come from somewhere else.

Becoming the Burke  

When Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925) died in 1925, his wife, Caroline McGilvra Burke, sought  an appropriate monument for her husband that would "advance the cause of a better mutual understanding between ... the people of the Pacific shores." A collector of Native American artifacts herself, she bequeathed her personal collection to the museum following her death in 1932.

The Burke Estate offered to help fund the new state museum, with one major stipulation -- the structure had to be called the Thomas Burke Memorial. Some University officials balked at this, as did Erna Gunther. The institution had been known as the Washington State Museum since 1899, and the Burke funds would only go toward a third of the construction costs. Negotiations ensued, and a combined name was agreed upon: The Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum.  

Other funds came from a National Science Foundation grant, but the new building was still smaller than one that Gunther recommended. Before it opened, Gunther turned 65, then the mandatory retirement age at the University. Although the University sometimes extended the retirement age -- as might have been the case to allow her to dedicate the new museum -- Gunther opted instead to resign, missing out on what should have been the crowning achievement of her career.

A New Look  

The Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum was dedicated on May 3, 1964, with Director Walter A. Fairservis at the helm. Fairservis had a background in archaeology and a keen interest in theater. He planned exhibits to look like stage sets, where visitors might immerse themselves as participants in the cultures being displayed.

One exhibit included live animals, which led to some complaints. Fairservis argued that museums shouldn’t resemble mausoleums, and that "living exhibitions" would serve the public better than collections of stuffed animals.  

The new exhibits were expensive, and legislative appropriations were inadequate. Fairservis hoped that his vision would appeal to Seattle's arts community, and bring a new stream of money. It didn't, and he left the museum in 1968.

Continued Growth  

Following Fairservis's resignation, Professor George Quimby was named the new director. Before becoming a curator at the Burke in the early 1960s, Quimby was a curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, one of the best museums of its kind in the nation. Unlike Fairservis's more dramatic flair, Quimby preferred a more traditional approach to exhibits, with a focus on the ethnology of the Pacific rim.

One of Quimby's most notable projects was the installation of four large totem poles in the central atrium, Carved by Bill Holm, curator of Northwest Coast Indian art, the poles were accurate replicas based on historic photographs of totems throughout the region. Quimby also oversaw the installation of two large skeletons in the South Gallery -- an Allosaurus dinosaur and a Megalonyx ground sloth.  

During Quimby’s tenure, the museum saw notable growth in almost all of its collections. The museum’s vertebrate fossils alone went from a few hundred into the tens of thousands. Quimby also revitalized the traveling collections first instituted by Erna Gunther in the 1930s.

Passing the Century Mark  

Quimby retired in 1984, just before the museum celebrated its 100th anniversary from its days at the Young Naturalists Hall in downtown Seattle. Patrick V. Kirch took over as director and during his tenure the museum experienced large crowds at two of its most successful exhibits: Chinasaurs, which showcased three large dinosaur skeletons on loan from Chongqing, China, and a gallery of Gary Larson panels The Far Side, a hit comic strip that often featured clever gags related to natural history.

Another popular exhibit was the state centennial exhibit, A Time of Gathering, a set of panels that highlighted information about all the Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest. It opened in 1989, the year that Kirsch stepped down as director to accept an anthropology faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley.  

Ornithologist Sievert Rohwer took over as acting director until 1991, when anthropologist Karl Hutterer was hired. Hutterer faced many challenges, not the least of  which was requesting more money from the state for upgrades to the building. In the early 1990s, the museum shut down for more than a year for fire and life safety renovations. In 1997, new longterm exhibits were installed to replace older ones that were starting to show their age.

Into the Next Century  

Hutterer left in 2000, and Roxana Augusztiny served as acting director for nearly two years until George MacDonald was hired. MacDonald, who came from the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa oversaw another of the Burke's most popular exhibits -- the only Northwest showing of The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition -- which had people lined up outside the building.

MacDonald left in 2004, and Augusztiny came out of retirement once again to serve as acting director. In 2005, Julie Stein became the newest director. Stein, a professor of anthropology, oversaw all operations and collections, which -- as of 2008 -- numbered about 5 million objects.  

As a testament to the Burke Museum's professionalism and broad diversity, the museum was chosen as a "neutral depository" for the remains of Kennewick Man -- the ancient and nearly complete skeleton discovered in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River -- while the courts decide whether the bones belong to local tribes or to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on whose land they were found. This is just one of the many roles that the Burke Museum serves as it moves forward into its second hundred years as Washington’s premier museum of natural history.

In May 2016, students from the University Temple Children's School joined elected officials and University of Washington leaders in a groundbreaking ceremony for the "New Burke," a $99 million building 60 percent larger than the existing museum. Located just west of the old museum -- which closed in 2018 so that the staff could begin moving millions of objects and exhibits next door -- the new facility was designed by architectural firm Olson Kundig. The New Burke is planned to open in October 2019.


Keith R. Benson, "Exploration in a Pioneer Land: The Young Naturalists’ Society and the Birth of the Museum Idea in the Washington Territory,” Landmarks, Vol. IV, No. 1; Lenore Ziontz, “The State Museum Comes of Age,” Ibid; Paul Dorpat, “Homes of the Museum,” Ibid.; Arn Slettebak, “A Museum on the Pacific Rim: The Quimby Years (1968-84),” Ibid.; Bill Holm, “Memories of the Old Museum,” Ibid.; Patrick V. Kirch, “On the Threshold of a Second Century,”Ibid.; R. Esther Coleman, “The Washington State Museum,” The Town Crier, August 19, 1916, p. 13; Charlotte D. Widrig, “Our State Museum -- Treasure House on Campus,” The Seattle Times, March 29, 1955, pp. Magazine 5-6; Lucile McDonald, “What Goes on Behind Closed Doors," The Seattle Times, September 8, 1963, pp. Magazine 10-11; Thomas Mansfield, “Burke Museum Is Filled with Treasures,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 24, 1975, p. D-4; David M. Buerge, “The Quirky History of the Burke Museum,” Seattle Weekly, October 30, 1985, pp. 43, 48-49; Frederick Case, “What Lurks at the Burke,” The Seattle Times, October 4, 1985, pp. E-1, E-3; John S. Robinson, “The Best-Kept Secret in Seattle,” Seattle Weekly, October 30, 1985, pp. 26-32; M. L. Lyke, “The Burke’s Back,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 14, 1991, pp. C-1, C-3; Sally MacDonald, “Burke Shows New Respect for Cultures,” The Seattle Times, July 19, 1991, pp. B-1-B-2; Alan Stein interview with Roxana Augusztiny, January 18, 2008, Seattle, Washington; Burke Museum website accessed October 7, 2019 (http://www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington History, “Kennewick Man” (by Kit Oldham), http://www,historylink.org/ (accessed January 21, 2008). Note: This file was updated on October 8, 2019.

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