Bone Up

The Coolest Thing About the New Burke Isn't the Huge Mastodon

But that's pretty cool, too.

By Stefan Milne September 18, 2019

The Synecdoche mural by RYAN! Feddersen (Okanogan and Lakes) inside the new Burke Museum. 

Upon entering the new Burke Museum, which opens to the public on October 12, you will see a whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling and, to your right, the assembled bones of a mastodon. You may take the stairs to the first level, which houses indigenous pieces—art and cultural objects—from canoes and totem poles to the work of six local Native artists. On the second floor you can explore the museum's biology collections. You will see Salish Sea fish and various peculiar mammals, bristling with fur, and a gorilla hand. The third floor gives way to fossils and other archeological artifacts.

This is all cool (it's a goddamn mastodon!), but if you've been to a natural history museum, you've seen similar stuff. Seen one T. Rex skull, seen them all. At a press preview on Tuesday, the most interesting part to me was walking past all the labs embedded in the new Burke's layout. All over the museum—sometimes behind glass, but also out in the open—you see people doing the actual work of keeping natural history and science alive. The new space, said architect Tom Kundig (who led the project), is meant to be open and highly adaptable—a building that can change with the work done in it.

A view of a biology lab. 

Image: Stefan Milne

Passing between the three levels in the natural-light filled space, I wandered by scientists (in the biology area, two guys were preserving what looked like a giant pheasant for lab work) and an artist sculpting a wooden dorsal fin for a statue he was working on. When the museum opens, it will enlist around 100 volunteers—"Sparks"—to help visitors engage with what's happening in the labs (while not bugging the people in the lab).

The preview also included a first tasting from Off the Rez Cafe, the first brick-and-mortar location from the beloved Native food truck. Some dishes you'd recognize from the truck menu—Indian tacos with chili, sweet frybreads. Others ate like contemporary cafe food with a curious twist. A potato salad dressed in mustard skewed away from the boilerplate with bits of corn and peppers and sweet potatoes instead of russets. A bowl of wild rice came with pickled red onions, crema, vegetables, and braised bison. It was good, inventive yet comforting, and felt like a bit of a mission statement. Much like the museum, it smartly fused contemporary culture with the history of this land.

That mastodon.

Image: Stefan Milne

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