Where Science Meets Art: the New Burke Museum

Burke Museum, Seattle, WA -

by Rosemary Ponnekanti
Delight. Discovery. Visual joy. Not words you’d immediately think of when imagining a natural history museum. Yet the new incarnation of Seattle’s Burke Museum, which opened October 12, offers all these and more in an expansive space where science meets art and design. The effect? Sheer joy in this planet of ours.
Enter the towering front doors under the giant whale skeleton and the new space envelops you. Soaring upward, outward and even inward (with window walls letting you gaze into workspaces of paleontologists and biologists), it’s the perfect architectural metaphor for scientific discovery. Glass and wood outside, exposed industrial beams inside express the museum’s mission to make the natural and human world transparent.
But it’s how that space is used that really makes science sing with art. In the Living Culture gallery – past the initial acknowledgment of the violence of colonization – Indigenous cultures burst out of dimensional layers. Physical objects (an interactive weaving column, a Coast Salish snowboard) stand before glass cases of artifacts highlighted by text and images, and framed by stunning floor-to-ceiling wall photographs: a Maori sailboat, tribal canoes.

"Synecdoche", a mural by artist RYAN! Feddersen (Okanogan and Lakes), soars three stories at the heart of the museum. Photo: Dennis Wise, courtesy of Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture.

On the staircase, floor-to-ceiling continues with the powerful, playful mural Synecdoche, by RYAN! Feddersen (Okanogan and Lakes). Playing o the literary term, Feddersen created a grid of icons that evolve in upward columns, representing something much greater than themselves: a school bus becomes a six-pack drink ring becomes a hashtag becomes an alien.
Other floors are similarly filled with visual joy. Alison Marks’ (Tlingit) Coast Salish version of the Fremont Troll crouches under beams, giant photos illustrate Washington ecosystems, a vivid Salish-style mural of canoes and orcas illuminates the children’s “beach scientist” play area.
In the fossil gallery, dinosaurs leap like a Night at the Museum scene, and fossils jump out of a two-wall mural timeline from Eocene to Ice Age. There are suspended shells, walls of baskets, a circular evolutionary tree erupting with skulls and a taxidermied ostrich.
Upstairs is the immersive Tidal Breaks gallery, filled with massive white walls of underwater video (floating jellies, schooling sharks) and an overhead sculpture of sailing rope and cut white paper foam, hovering over soft cushions.
Our world – and the science that explains it – is beautiful. But sometimes it takes art to remind us of that.

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