Lessons from the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

With a list of favorite museums that spans the British Museum, MFA in Boston, and Cairo Museum, it hardly seems fair for me to hold museums here in Seattle to the same standards. After all, Seattle isn’t a national capitol like Dublin, nor a major metropolis like New York City. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to set aside certain expectations I’ve developed over the decades for “what a museum should be.”

Burke Museum totem poles 01So far, the only museum in Seattle that hasn’t disappointed on some level is the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, on the University of Washington campus. The Burke isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot to learn among its exhibits.

We arrived shortly after the museum opened at 10:00 and parked for free ($9.50 Mon-Sat) behind the museum. Even the Burke’s first impression is more “museum-like” than MOHAI or SAM, with large fossils lining the walkway and replicas of Northwest Coast totem poles (19th-century originals long-since decayed or rightfully returned to their tribal owners) standing amid the nearby trees. My wife was enchanted by the well-tended landscaping, and it was all I could do to drag her indoors.

In the museum foyer, a long glass case contains the museum’s most treasured artifacts and specimens. They were all lovely, but the only one that left a lasting impression was the skull of an orangutan donated by the Woodland Park Zoo, which sort of just made me sad thinking about the orang who must have died in the zoo and ended up here (don’t get me wrong; I do think zoos have an important role to play in conservation and education). We pressed on.

I was most interested in the museum’s collections of Washington State archaeological artifacts, and assumed that they would be displayed in the “cultural exhibits” that the man behind the front desk (with an impressive mustache) pointed us to downstairs.

The “Pacific Voices” exhibit appears to suggest that there is some sort of unifying culture that spans the Pacific Rim, from the Northwest Coast Indians to the distant Maori, Lao, Koreans, and other peoples who share access to this ocean. Some ethnologists have begun making tentative connections between Native American tribes here in the Pacific Northwest and the Ainu of Hokkaido, but an overarching Pacific culture seems as anthropologically unsound as a single Asian culture.

Taken individually, most of the exhibits in “Pacific Voices” were fascinating — a combination of intriguing artifacts from all over the Pacific and excellent contemporary art with a few models thrown in for interpretive purposes, but several of the sections lacked any meaningful artifacts (the Korean mannequins having a wedding and the abandoned Chinese New Year meal), and it was hard to buy the unifying theme beyond a common body of water. Perhaps I missed a placard clarifying the nuance the curators intended.

As it turns out, what I was really looking for in the museum was all upstairs, in the “Life and Times of Washington State” exhibit. Starting in the Cambrian and Ordovician with trilobites and crinoids, the exhibit walks visitors through the natural and early human history of Washington State, ending with the paleontology and archaeology of the state when it was first populated by the Clovis people.

Along the way, there’s a digression for dinosaurs — required to attract the critical museum demographic of 9-year-olds — even though Washington was mostly underwater at the time. In addition to the usual casts one might expect at a small museum, the Burke has an excellent mesosaurus plate from Brazil (Mesosaurus tenuidens) and complete, articulated mosasaur (Platecarpus tympaniticus).

Platecarpus tympaniticus 01

Perhaps most exciting is an as-yet-unpublished holotype fossil of a new genus of early baleen whale. Other notable fossils include gorgeous crabs from the Lincoln Creek Formation in Grays Harbor County and “stone rose” from Republic.

But it’s ultimately the material culture of my fellow humans that I look for in natural history museums — along with the flora and fauna in their environments — and I wasn’t disappointed. Rounding a corner, a complete mastodon skeleton looms over a low ramp. On the left, Ice Age fossils from mammoth tusks to bison horns. An unexpected find at the Burke: The skeleton of a giant ground sloth excavated while building Sea-Tac Airport in 1961. On the right, a display case contains the East Wenatchee Clovis Cache.

Between sentences as I type this, I’m feeling the weight of my newly rediscovered paleolithic blades in my left hand. On the opposite arm of the chair, I’ve lined up my neolithic blades.

The contrast between the people who made the crude paleolithic blades and the near-modern (on evolutionary time scales) first people of the Americas couldn’t be more clear. (Update: See why my assessment of paleolithic tools as “crude” may be wrong: “Industrial design of the paleolithic“.)

And there’s a clear connection between the smooth, clean lines of my neolithic blades from ‘Ain Ghazhal and these stunning Clovis blades from Wenatchee, Washington. Both the blades and their very presence in America represent the inevitable progress we make as a species.

This brings us full circle to the “Pacific Voices” exhibit I criticized earlier.

Even if human culture of the last thousand years can’t be summarized so simplistically with an idea like “Pacific Rim culture,” there is deep truth to the idea that we really are all one people, with shared history and a shared future. The neolithic blades in my right hand and the Clovis blades at the Burke are proof of our shared history. The diversity on display in the “Pacific Voices” exhibit reflects how far we’ve come as a species since then, but it also reflects the deep divisions between us — especially as illustrated by the religious practices Burke curators have chosen to focus on.

As we look to our future, perhaps there are more lessons about our similarities to be learned from the people of Clovis and ‘Ain Ghazal than from “Pacific Voices.”

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