The Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture

The Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture is the oldest public museum in Washington State with a collection of over 16 million artifacts and specimens, ranging from totem poles and gemstones to dinosaur fossils. Because the Burke’s collection is so wide-ranging and continues to grow, it needed a new building to serve as a coherent, effective container that would allow for flexibility over time. Olson Kundig Architects from Seattle took on the creative task.

Olson Kundig Architects

Tom Kundig: “The design goal was to tell the story of the Burke through transparency – allowing the public to see inside to every part of the museum, revealing elements like research and collections management that were previously hidden away from view. We wanted to create a simple, beautiful, rational and flexible building that will serve the Burke for hundreds of years.

It is an inviting place not only for the public, but also for the scientists, researchers and curators of today and tomorrow.”

Large areas of glazing now maximize transparency and expose the interior experience to the street to connect the Burke to the campus, landscape and city. The design broke down traditional museum barriers between public and back-of-house spaces, integrating collections and research labs with traditional galleries and enabling visitors and the surrounding community to engage with the process of scientific discovery in a true working museum. A 24-foot-by-20-foot pivoting window wall continues this emphasis on transparency to literally open the Burke to the nature of a new outdoor courtyard.

At its core, the mission of the Burke is to help everyone – curators, visitors, educators and students – make a connection with our natural world in all its complexities. Dual entrances link the museum to both the University of Washington campus and the surrounding community. The exterior Kebony siding and sequence of tall, narrow windows reference forests across the Pacific Northwest, and like cedar or fir, the Burke’s Scots pine siding will silver with age. Windows help to frame and exhibit objects for both internal and external views, while providing natural light and ventilation. A large central atrium and “smart glass” skylight likewise foster a bright, daylit interior experience, without risking damage to sensitive artifacts.

project team: Tom Kundig

design principal; Stephen Yamada-Heidner

principal and project manager; Edward Lalonde and Justin Helmbrecht

Photos: Aaron Leitz