History

From teenage startup to world-class museum, the Burke’s story spans 130 years and continues into the future.

Earliest Beginnings

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.

Young Naturalists Society founders 1882

Founding members of the Young Naturalists’ Society (from left) P. Brooks Randolph, Walter A. Hall, J.O. Young and Fred M. Hall on April 30, 1882. Photo: UW Libraries Special Collections Division, Negative #UW21691.

Bug Johnson and Parkers 1890

Pictured (from left) are Orson “Bug” Johnson, Adella Parker Bennett and Maude Parker in 1890. Photo: University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division, Negative #UW501.

Hall of the Young Naturalists 1885

When the university's campus was in downtown Seattle, the museum got its first "building" in 1885 in this structure, known as the Hall of the Young Naturalists. Photo: UW Libraries Special Collections Division, Negative #UW910.

Parrington and Denny Halls ca. 1902

From 1895 to 1910, museum collections were displayed on the UW campus in the Administration Hall (right, now Denny Hall) and Science Hall (left, now Parrington Hall). Photo: UW Libraries Special Collections Division, Negative #UW574.

California Building exhibit cases 1910

The museum's cultural collections were housed in the California Building (part of Seattle's first world's fair) from 1910–1914. Photo: Burke Museum Archives.

Museum students in Washington State Building 1950

Third-grade class seated on the staircase of the Washington State Building, one of the museum's many homes, on Dec. 7, 1950. Photo: University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division, Negative #UW19956z.

Portraits of Thomas Burke and Caroline McGilvra Burke ca. 1910

Judge Thomas Burke and Caroline McGilvra Burke shared a great interest in Native American culture. Photos: UW Libraries Special Collections Division, Negative #UW2733 (Thomas Burke) and #UW902 (Caroline McGilvra Burke). 

Becoming the Washington State Museum

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. 

Finding a Home for the Museum

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.

Getting a Name

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.

Who were the Burkes?

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.

The Burke Today

Today, the Burke continues its legacy of collections, research, education and community engagement. We are:

Burke main entrance in summer

With the goal of inspiring people to value their connection with all life and act accordingly, the Burke creates a better understanding of the world and our place in it. Photo: Richard Brown Photography.

UW students with pump drills

The Burke served 16,600 students at the University of Washington in fiscal year 2015, including this group of student athletes who used the museum's Oceania collection to explore their heritage. Photo: Burke Museum.

Lou-ann Neel holds an object in the Burke's culture collection.

Researchers frequently visit the Burke to study the collections. Kwagiulth artist Lou-ann Neel (pictured) came to the Burke to study objects as part of a research grant from the Burke's Bill Holm Center. Photo: Burke Museum.

Examining objects in BurkeMobile program

The Burke provides educational programs throughout Washington state and traveling exhibits around the country. 292,000 people were reached through these offerings in fiscal year 2014. Photo: Richard Brown Photography.

man holding small boy looking at giant ground sloth skeleton

Coming from around Washington and the world, more than 110,000 people visited the Burke during fiscal year 2015, including this pair to examine the giant ground sloth found at SeaTac Airport over 50 years ago. Photo: Burke Museum.

The Washington State Museum of Natural History and Culture

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.

A place to connect with the life before you

Through on and off-site programs, exhibits and events, we encourage all ages to explore the natural and cultural world of the past, present and future. 

16 million objects

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.

A research institution

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

An active part of the UW community

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. 

The Burke Tomorrow

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.

New Burke architectural illustration
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