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Behind The Scenes At The Burke Museum

Just past the front door of the Burke Natural History Museum, on the University of Washington campus, you’ll find a little alcove. It’s the perfect place to linger on a rainy day.  

Under display cases of sparkling crystals and other mineral specimens, you’ll see sets of slim drawers. Open one, and after you let out a squeak of surprise, you can marvel at the bodies of insects, birds and other small creatures those drawers contain.

When you tire of the animal remains, a dimly lit room full of dinosaur bones beckons. It’s a veritable treasure hunt for elementary school aged kids.

But Director Julie Stein says visitors only get a small glimpse of the Burke's holdings. 

"The average museum puts less than one percent of their collections on display," she explains. "I believe ours is smaller than that. It's probably less than .01 (percent)."

The building that houses the Burke opened in 1962. Unlike modern facilities, it doesn't have climate control, or even enough storage space to house the tens of thousands of artifacts that sit on shelves, out of the public eye.

Some of the metal shelves are on rollers, like a library archives. Burke curators roll them back and forth when they want access to a particular relic. Even then, the storage rooms are crammed to the ceilings with more than 7,000 woven baskets and hundreds of carved wooden masks. The baskets are nested inside one another, to maximize space.

Spears and knives are crammed together like sardines on peg boards mounted on the walls. They're stored the same way your dad might hang hammers or screwdrivers in his basement shop room.

The Burke also houses hundreds of fossils, including the mammoth bones that a construction crew uncovered on the shore of Seattle's South Lake Union. Perhaps the museum's most famous artifact is Kennewick Man.

This ancient skeleton, discovered in the Columbia River near Richland, has been at the center of lawsuits between the Northwest tribes that claim him as an ancestor and scientists who believe his bones will reveal important information about the region's original inhabitants.

"He's stored in a very high-tech case, to protect him," Stein says.

Representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers must be present if the Kennewick Man case is opened.

"We don't even tell people where he is" in the museum, Stein stresses.

What Stein does want people to know is what scientists do behind the scenes at the museum. A bank of deep freezers holds avian DNA samples. Researchers from around the world can request them for study. Ditto the soil samples from various Northwest archeological digs.

Stein and her colleagues have asked the Washington State Legislature for funds to create a new, expanded home for the Burke. They have plans to build it on the adjacent parking lot, on the UW's northwest side. Stein envisions an institution with windows that would allow visitors to see researchers in action. And she'd like more gallery space.

But until then, the Burke's curators offer special glimpses of some of what they've got in storage. On Oct. 11 and 12, check out Mammoth Mania. In addition to the South Lake Union mammoth bones, the museum will pull out the remains of a mammoth uncovered near Richland, Washington. Curators will lay out the bones to see if there are enough to recreate the entire mammoth skeleton.

If they do, you could see it on display. In a new Burke Museum.