New Digs

Olson Kundig upgrades Seattle's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

The new Burke Museum is clad with southern pine, a material that was once a common building material in the area. (Courtesy Olson Kundig)

The new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture building opened its doors on Seattle’s University of Washington Campus on October 12, three years after the project was first announced. Designed by local architecture firm Olson Kundig using a $99 million budget, the 113,000-square-foot Burke Museum contains 66 percent more space for research, education, and storage, and features a series of airy exhibition spaces displaying a portion of its 16 million-object collection of fossils and Native American art, the majority of which was held in storage for much of the institution’s 130-year past.

“We look forward to having a new building that serves as a gathering place for learning, research, and appreciation of cultures and the environment for generations to come,” said Burke Museum Executive Director Dr. Julie K. Stein.

Interior image of museum lobby

A whale skeleton hangs above an entrance on the ground floor. (Courtesy Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture)

The new Burke was designed to reflect both the present conditions of the university and the Pacific Northwest character of the site, most notably with its distinctive Kebony-produced siding made of southern pine, a material that was once a common building material in the area. Additionally, a Pacific madrone tree that was once on the site was carefully removed to be later integrated back into the construction to minimize waste on the property. These and other gestures were initiated in keeping with the building’s goal of being accredited with LEED Gold certification. The building does, however, contain plenty of signature design gestures from the firm, including a large pivoting window wall in the museum’s expansive café.

“We wanted to create a simple, beautiful, rational, and flexible building that will serve the Burke for hundreds of years,” said Tom Kundig, cofounder of Olson Kundig. “It is an inviting place not only for the public but also for the scientists, researchers, and curators of today and tomorrow.”

While previous iterations of the museum were opaque and disjointed, the firm sought to make the institution’s new home transparent and united in its facilities. Labs and gallery spaces, for example, are separated by panes of glass to provide visitors with the opportunity to see roughly two-thirds of the items kept on storage shelves as well as “behind-the-scenes” paleontology. “I knew we had to do more than just build a bigger box with good air conditioning,” said Stein. “People’s reaction to going behind the scenes is magic. We had to do something to create that magic for everyone who comes to the Burke, not just the select few who get a behind-the-scenes tour.”

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