From teenage startup to world-class museum, the Burke’s story spans 130 years and continues into the future.
In December 1879, a group of teenagers watching Seattle transform before their eyes began to gather specimens and objects to document the world around them. They called themselves the Young Naturalists’ Society, and soon they began meeting weekly, organizing expeditions and holding lectures.
In 1885, the Society raised enough money for a small building to house their collection, and a museum was born. Located on the University of Washington’s original campus in downtown Seattle, the Hall of the Young Naturalists, as it was called, was the hub of natural history in the Pacific Northwest.
Over the years, the museum and the University became more and more entwined, as early professors become involved with the Young Naturalists’ Society and early members became University professors.
Today, the Young Naturalists’ Society lives again. In 2013, five graduate students from the University of Washington’s Biology Department re-formed the society and its activities. You can follow this new iteration on the blog of the Young Naturalists’ Society of the Pacific Northwest.
On March 6, 1899, the state legislature designated the museum as the Washington State Museum: “a depository for the preservation and exhibition of documents and objects possessing an historical value, of materials illustrating the fauna, flora, anthropology, mineral wealth, and natural resources of the state, and for all documents and objects whose preservation will be of value to the student of history and the natural sciences” (Act of March 6, 1899, ch. 30, § 1, 1899 Wash. Sess. Laws 40 [PDF]).
Today, the museum continues to serve Washington state by providing hands-on science and culture education; conducting original research and establishing baseline data; preserving our shared heritage by caring for 16 million objects; and providing tools for state and federal agencies.
Through the years, the museum has occupied many locations. Initially, museum collections were housed on the original campus of the Territorial University of Washington (the name the UW went by before Washington became a state) in downtown Seattle (at present-day Fourth Avenue and University Street).
The University began relocating to its current campus in northeast Seattle in 1895. The Society loaned collections to University departments for research. From 1895 to 1910, on-campus collections were displayed in the Administration Hall (now Denny Hall) and Science Hall (now Parrington Hall). Still, there were few buildings on the campus until Seattle’s first world’s fair—the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (AYP) Exposition of 1909.
In 1910, the museum’s collections were moved from their on-campus locations and the downtown Hall into two AYP buildings. The cultural collections were moved to the California Building, and the biological collections were moved to the Forestry Building. In 1914, the California Building was closed due to leaking and overcrowding, and the cultural collections were reunited with the biological collections in the Forestry Building. By 1923, the Forestry Building’s raw timbers had deteriorated and the building was closed. Collections were stored until 1927, and then moved again—this time to the Washington State Building.
In 1953, the UW Faculty Senate recommended that a new museum be built on the University campus, and in 1957, the Washington State Building was closed after being home to the museum for 30 years. The collections were put into storage until a new building could be completed. Contributing to the new building were designated funds from the Washington State Legislature, the Burke estate and the National Science Foundation.
In 1962, the museum’s current building—on the corner of 17th Avenue NE and NE 45th Street—was completed and the museum collections found a dedicated home.
Currently, plans are underway for a new museum building, to be constructed along 15th Avenue NE, adjacent to the museum’s current location.
Initially, the Young Naturalists’ Society didn’t have a formal name for their collections, but in 1885, they began calling their small museum the Hall of the Young Naturalists. Following the move to the current UW Seattle campus, the museum was known as the University Museum, and then in 1899, it officially became the Washington State Museum. The Burke acquired its current name in 1962, in recognition of a bequest honoring Judge Thomas Burke.
Thomas Burke (1849–1925) was a highly respected judge, successful businessman, civic activist and a tireless champion of education and culture in Seattle.
Thomas and his wife, Caroline McGilvra Burke, shared a great interest in Native American culture and were among the earliest collectors of Northwest Native art. Many of their collections are now housed at the museum that bears their name.
Today, the Burke continues its legacy of collections, research, education and community engagement. We are:
As such, the Burke is responsible for caring for the objects that make up the shared natural and cultural heritage of Washington state. Our collections, research and expertise are public resources.
Objects in the Burke's collections come from all over the world, but many originated from the Pacific Northwest. Our collections of regional plants, animals and Northwest Native art are among the largest anywhere. These objects answer questions we’re asking today and those we may ask in the future.
Burke collections facilitate original, groundbreaking research in cultural studies, material culture, biology, geology and paleontology. This research is conducted by our own in-house experts, students at the UW and farther afield, and researchers worldwide. Read a selection of Burke research-related posts on our blog.
Students use our collections to support ongoing research and to conduct research of their own; faculty use the museum for education; and the UW community uses the Burke for socializing, inspiration and life-long learning. Burke curators are faculty members at the UW.
Well into the future, the Burke is committed to serving Washington state and communities around the world. In preparation to do just that, we are undergoing a transformation. Learn more about the New Burke and how you can be involved.