Reflecting on the past decade of research and academics at the Burke Museum

Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum
Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum
December 3, 2021 | Christian Sidor

Like an annual physical with your doctor, universities, museums, and institutions have their own periodic evaluation process, called an academic review, to ensure their academic engine or beating heart is healthy and running at its best. 

In early 2021, the Burke Museum invited four distinguished scholars to conduct its own academic review—the very first completed in the museum’s 136-year history. Little did I know that helping to lead this comprehensive appraisal would be such a milestone, as the process required collaborative teamwork and a sweeping review of the vast opportunities and challenges ahead for the Burke. I found myself leading this responsibility in my role as the Burke’s Associate Director of Research and Collections. For six years, I had the privilege to serve in this capacity where I administered and oversaw the academic portion of the museum, which includes about one-third of the museum’s staff. In addition, I was able to call upon my 16 years of understanding of the Burke from my role as Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology. 

Academic success for the future 

The idea of an academic review was one that always interested me. Academic reviews are typically conducted every five or 10 years. They are a requirement for degree-granting units at the University of Washington (UW). The Burke falls into a gray-zone, where we teach UW courses and conduct research, but do not grant degrees. Opting into this rigorous, time intensive, and multi-step evaluation is not a decision to make lightly. However, with the 2020 announcements of retirement coming from the Burke’s Executive Director, Dr. Julie Stein, and UW College of Arts & Science Dean, Dr. Bob Stacey, I knew completing an academic review would document the museum’s impact and help shape the Burke’s future of scholastic excellence and success. 

Museum-wide collaboration and reflection  

The first step in the review process was to conduct a thoughtful and broad self-study. Colleagues from across the entire museum came together to gather data and insight on where we are and where we should be going. Over six months, we compiled a massive 136-page document containing a decade’s worth of data spanning from 2010 to 2019.  

Our self-study shared details such as total courses taught, how many students utilized collections for coursework or independent research, how many advanced degrees were awarded from our curators’ labs, and how many publications were based on the museum collections. The Burke’s K-12 education programs, relationship-building with the community, financial picture, public programs, and work towards diversity, equity, access, and inclusion were all captured in the self-study. Additionally, each of the museum’s collections declared their strategic plans for the next decade. This level of reflection and work gave us all an incredible foundation  to help inform our future. For me, it was thrilling to record the tangible academic impact over an entire decade. Some of the highlights from the past decade include: 

  • 3,000+ publications from our staff, students, and researchers who utilized the Burke collections
  • 7,000+ students who engaged with the Burke collections
  • 54 different undergraduate classes taught by Burke curators and staff
  • 64 graduate degrees awarded to students studying at the Burke

Looking forward and advancing in our scholastic journey 

Next in the academic review process, we shared this document with our committee of four scholars, who were selected by the Dean. Over four days in April 2021, this committee conducted virtual interviews with every Burke department, our curators and collections managers, postdocs and students, educators, as well as members of the Burke’s boards: the Burke Museum Association and the Native American Advisory Board. Over the course of 30 hours of meetings, the committee gathered and discussed every element of work across the museum, including conversation and discourse around what is working well and areas for transformation and improvement.  

In the final phase of this six-month journey, an evaluation with specific recommendations was completed by the review committee. Those findings were shared in a formal report to the Dean. This cumulative report made many important recommendations to set the museum up for another 100 years of success. Doctor’s scrubs, stethoscope, and clipboard aside, together we completed a vital checkup and I’m glad to report that the Burke’s academic prognosis is excellent.