Growing Pains -- The Burke Museum Wants To Show Off More Goodies In Bigger Digs Downtown

Weird and wonderful stuff that never sees the light of day is stored in the crowded basement of the University of Washington's Burke Museum.

The oldest apple leaf in the world - 50 million years old. Eight-foot-tall, full-body costumes with huge, hollow eyes made out of rattan from Papua New Guinea. The frill - or collarlike shield - of a triceratops dinosaur. And 6,000 baskets made by Native Americans.

It amounts to 3 million objects - but lack of space has kept 99 percent of what's display-quality hidden from the public eye.

Frustrated by this, natural-history lovers have nurtured a dream for years: Expand the modest Burke into a world-class museum in a new building - and put it in downtown Seattle within 10 years.

The first big step is about to happen. Next month, the UW will begin a several-month study, costing as much as $175,000 in state money, to see whether a regional natural-history museum makes economic sense, to see where it might be located, and to develop a business plan.

"Seattle has grown into a big, metropolitan center and incredibly dynamic place. It has the kind of population, economy and social organization that is in fact a natural market for a much larger natural-history museum," says Burke director Karl Hutterer.

The museum's partner in the project is the Northwest Museum of Natural History, an organization whose members range from attorneys and paleontologists to physicians and museum administrators.

The organization's president, attorney Allen Israel, observes: "The Burke is a very good museum, but it's largely inaccessible to people who are not on campus."

A new museum would not be as huge but would be similar in scope to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City or the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

It would emphasize the region's natural treasures and its indigenous peoples, particularly with its world-famous collection of Northwest Indian art and artifacts, and would include a growing collection from Asia and the Pacific Islands.

The Burke study comes at a time when the UW proposes to erect a new Law School building in the parking lot south of the existing museum.

Skeptics think that project should wait until the Burke study is complete - so as not to rule out the museum's ability to expand at its present location.

"I would like them to be able to make the decision in an atmosphere where they weren't constrained by the Law School," said Stevan Harrell, chairman of the UW anthropology department.

But UW administrators say that even without a new law building, the campus couldn't handle the hundreds of thousands of visitors they say a much bigger Burke would generate. The Burke now gets about 60,000 visitors a year.

There's also worry about how the Burke's relationship with the university might change. The museum is a department of the UW's College of Arts and Sciences. But some suggest a regional museum might be better off with its own board of trustees, while remaining a state museum and the museum of the university.

However governance plays out, Hutterer has this assurance: "I don't think there is anybody who wants to sever the Burke from the university. There is a great deal of mutual benefit from the association."

The museum could split into two branches - leaving its scientific collections and curators, who teach at the university, on campus and moving exhibition space downtown.

Building a museum of the caliber envisioned will take money and years.

Many of the Burke's geological and zoological collections are meant for scientific research, not display. The museum also has not collected enough of the sort of large fossil specimens - mammoths, and dinosaurs - that catch attention and would be expected by the visiting public, so some acquisitions would be necessary.

Meanwhile, the Burke is redesigning all its exhibits and facing enormous space problems.

Typical galleries in large museums are 10,000 to 15,000 square feet. The Burke now has a total of 16,000 square feet broken into several exhibits.

It's not just a matter of needing room to show off collections but of being able to put on more dramatic and informative exhibits, Hutterer says.

"One of the things that turns many kids on to learning is the magic of the object," he says. "The magic of the real thing and being able to interact with it. In the new museum we would have the space to bring out stuff, and kids can work with it."