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The Burke Museum: Protecting Native Art and Building a New Home

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The Burke Museum:
Protecting Native Art and Building a New Home

by Matthew Kangas

Do you know which museum is the oldest in the state of Washington? Founded in 1885, the Burke Museum is not only the oldest but has the further distinction of being among the top five US repositories of Pacific Northwest Coast Native Art (the others being the American Museum of Natural History in New York; the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and DC; and Chicago's Field Museum). This preeminence alone places the Burke on the map of any visitor to Seattle in search of art and indigenous cultures.

However, over the past 129 years, the University of Washington-based institution has become much more, all of which sets it in a global company of anthropological, natural history, art history, and ethnographic museums, often all rolled into one, such as the Royal Provincial Museum in Victoria, BC; Musée Quai Branly in Paris; the British Museum in London and the great indigenous art collections in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Brussels.

The idea of an all-encompassing compendium of world knowledge of all beings, creations and cultures dates back to the private curio cabinets of the 18th-century French and English Enlightenment (the time of Diderot's enormous, original Encyclopédie, 1752 - 1772). In this sense, the Burke Museum is now among the last or only type of museum of its breed in the Washington state (or in Idaho, Montana, or Oregon for that matter). With over 16 million objects ("from eggs to totem poles," as Robin Wright, director of the Burke's Bill Holm Center, said) in 10 major categories, the Burke is above all a scholarly, teaching museum both for UW students and the miscellaneous general public which last year toured 32,000 elementary and secondary school­children on-site with a total of 110,000 if you count after-school visits and those accompanied by parents.

Yes, dinosaurs are a big draw and, in this respect, the Burke does not disappoint. Thanks to their Olympia-funded field trips, Burke paleontologists are at work all over the world and, most importantly, within Washington state. Visitors can see skeletal fossilized remains to their heart's content. They will also enjoy the large lobby orientation display case, "Life and Times of Washington State," a wonderful, old-style diorama filled with everything from dinosaur bones to Native Art, flora, fauna and gemstones. Nearby in another case are taxidermy examples (now referred to by the politically correct term, "museum-prepared").

Poised on their 135th anniversary in 2020, UW officials have persuaded Olympia legislators and private donors to open a new $99 million facility facing Northeast 45th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast at the campus' northwest corner in late 2019. It will be 60 percent larger than the current 1963 building designed by James Chiarelli, with a larger museum shop and café along with extensive exhibition galleries; visible storage and conservation areas; staff offices; storage for the 16 million objects; and more classroom space, the better to accommodate the university's growing museum studies program.

The peculiar hybrid that the Burke and its few national and international peers are also involves the legacy of 19th-century empire-drawn collections when many of the Northwest Coast Native Art masterpieces were first acquired. Because none of it was considered fine art, unlike today's Native Art, these magnificent troves ended up in the archetypal Victorian museum: the universal natural history museum (Oxford University's Pitt Rivers Museum is one, appropriately named after a founding father of ethnology). Franz Boas, another pioneer anthropologist, became famous due to his extensive analysis of the Coastal tribe cultures of Washington, BC, and Alaska. His fame brought deeper respect for Northwest Indian Art, including from the founder of structural anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss.

On view for over 17 years, "Pacific Voices" is a display of 17 different Pan-Pacific, indigenous cultures, mostly drawn from the Burke's 16 million objects and accompanied by helpful, readable labels and vintage in situ photographs. China, Korea and Japan have mini-dioramas as do the Maori, Hawaii and Eskimo Inuit peoples. The kind of intense, lots-to-look-at exhibit that first-time viewers and children, especially, never forget, "Pacific Voices" will close in late 2016 as part of the gradual transition to the new Olson Kundig-designed building.

As retiring Professor Robin Wright pointed out in an interview, the new site will be much bigger and contain more visible storage than the gold standard of the field, University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, the masterpiece of Canadian architect Arthur Erickson.

Dr. Wright's background is as an art historian (Ph.D., UW, 1977) rather than an anthropologist; this singles her out and accounts for the unusually close relationships to living Native artists for which the Burke has become known under its outreach Visiting Researchers program at their prestigious museological think-tank, the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Native Art. Contemporary tribal artists get to examine priceless paddles, masks and rattles, among other sculptures, to become inspired for their own artistic practice. More so than with Western art, but closer to Chinese art, the study of the art of Northwest Coast ancestors is crucial for the presentation and extension of such art in the present moment. It is, like classical Chinese art, about knowing and copying the originals with minute additions or interpolations.

So far, over half of the projected $54 million (or $29.8 million) of the state's part of the building budget has been released by the normally impecunious state lawmakers. This is proof of the social, cultural and political significance of the Burke Museum. Museum officials are seeking the remaining amount in the next few years.

Related art-historical scholarship must be government-funded because much of the art was first "collected" (or seized) by US government entities and because, as with the natural, social and human sciences pursued in the museum's mission, many questions remain to be answered.

As Dr. Wright put it, "We know that eleven thousand years ago, the Salish [people] were here and our knowledge will continue to grow. . . Someday, we may know more but, as of now, we still do not know [everything]." If and when such breakthroughs occur, it is very likely they will be at a multi-disciplinary, state-of-the-art museum like the Burke. In fact, between now and 2019, with the new building going up and a vibrant program, the Burke could usher in a whole new golden age of Northwest Native Art, paleontology, and archaeology.

David R. Boxley "Puppet"

Puppet, by David R. Boxley. This piece, displayed in the Burke Museum's recent Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired exhibition, was inspired by a historical Tsimshian puppet in the Burke's collection. Photo by Richard Brown Photography

Burke Museum 2016 Exhibits

January 25 - May 15

Sven Haakanson, YOU Build It: An Evolving Exhibit, interactive Native American artist builds an open boat or angyaqq

January 9

Artifact Identification Day, bring your arrowheads or masks to be identified by Burke Museum experts.

February 20

Archaeology Day, a special focus on the Museum's rich holdings of artifacts

March 20

Annual Dino Day, with TV host Dr. Scott Sampson of "Dinosaur Train."

May 14

Native Art Market, tribal craftsmen and artists from the region assemble in a widely attended special event.

June 18 - November 27

Wild Nearby, celebrating the 100th anniversary of North Cascades National Park with a special publication, objects from the Burke collection on view and special photographs are seen.

Ongoing until late 2016

Pacific Voices, a rich tapestry of 17 different Pacific Rim cultures and "how they adapt and remain vibrant in a changing world."

Life and Times of Washington State, a "passport to the evolution of our state's biology, geology, and archaeology."


Nathan Johnson, "House Post: Grizzy Bear with Kaats"

House Post: Grizzly Bear with Kaats, by Nathan Johnson, Tlingit, 2005. Burke Museum Cat. no. 2005-84/1. Photo by Steve Whiston

Haida rattle-top basket

Haida rattle-top basket, probably woven by a female relative of John Wallace in Hydaburg, AK, likely painted by master carver John Wallace. Burke Museum cat. no. 2012-150/1. Photo by Richard Brown Photograph

Rico Whorl Skateboard decks "Wooch Yax (Balance)"

Wooch Yax (Balance), Raven and Eagle Skateboard Decks, by Rico Whorl, Tlingit, 2014. Photo by Richard Brown Photography

MATTHEW KANGAS, Art Guide Northwest consulting editor, has written extensively about American art. He lives in Seattle and is a fourth-generation descendant of central Washington pioneer ranchers. Comprising a collective history of Northwest art, his essay and review anthologies are available from Midmarch Arts Press, New York.


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