Julie Stein and the Burke Museum go way back. Thirty five years ago, as a newly hired UW assistant professor of anthropology, Stein served as an adjunct curator at the museum. Ten years later she became curator of archaeology. In 2005, she was selected as the Burke’s executive director — a position she still holds.
Stein recently received the Western Museums Association’s Director’s Chair Award for her achievements at the Burke, prompting Perspectives to ask her about her time at the museum and exciting plans for the Burke’s future.
You were the Burke’s curator of archaeology for nine years. What interested you about that position?
I had started an archaeology field school on San Juan Island in 1983 and had been sending all the excavated material to the Burke. Without a curator or a collections manager — the position was vacant — I was having difficulty arranging for the long-term care of the collections. I realized access was probably a problem for other archaeologists who wanted to see the artifacts held in the Burke, and that by becoming the curator I could help ensure that the collections were available instead of sitting in storage. The first thing I did when I was hired was to open every drawer and look at its contents, to get a grasp of what was here.
You've always held a joint appointment at the Burke and in the Department of Anthropology. Is there a benefit to that?
All Burke curators hold joint appointments. When curators teach graduate and undergraduate students, they are often pushed to stay on their toes because they are working with the future of their field. Curators have to make decisions about what objects are going to be important in the future, and teaching provides an excellent perspective on that.
Also, being a curator allowed me to bring all my students into the museum. I brought in hundreds of undergraduates and dozens of graduate students every year to learn about objects and how to care for them. I thought this was a critical part of their training as future archaeologists.
There’s so much behind-the-scenes research going on at the Burke. Can you give an example of what’s taking place there?
It’s hard to pick a favorite example. Like your children, you love them all. Last year, we had more than 6,000 research visits and inquiries across the museum.
One recent example is the discovery of Washington’s first dinosaur fossil. It was found on Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands by researchers affiliated with the Burke. They alerted our paleontology staff, who excavated it and researched comparable specimens at other institutions to learn more about the bone, eventually publishing their research. I have been on that exact spot on Sucia Island many times, but as an archaeologist I did not see what the paleontologists saw when they recognized the bone. Working with experts in many different disciplines is one of the things I love the most about the Burke.
Do you have a favorite spot at the museum?
One of my favorite things to do is to go into the aisles where we store the baskets. You’re surrounded by hundreds of them and they smell like grass and cedar. It’s a very unique perk of working at the Burke.
The Burke is building a new museum facility, scheduled to open in 2019. Why is this necessary?
I realized from the moment I got to the Burke that we needed a new facility—even in 1990 we were packed to the gills. The collections are extremely compressed and our current facility has no climate control. The building puts hundreds, thousands — even millions — of years of scientific data and history at risk. There is not enough room for students and researchers to work on the collections where they are stored. We have explored remodeling and retrofitting, but those solutions don’t meet our needs and come at a high cost. It’s time for a new museum.
Beyond more space and climate control, how will the new facility be different?
In the current building, the public is separated from the collections, though the collections are key to learning about the world around us. These objects are used by thousands of students in their classes, theses, and to gain experience for future employment, but right now they are hidden from the people they are intended to serve. Our goal with the new facility is to turn the museum inside out so that people can see and interact with the 16 million objects in our collections. We want them to know about the research and magic that is happening behind the scenes.
Will the new facility be in the same location?
It will still be at the northwest corner of the Seattle campus, but it will face 15th Avenue NE and will stretch from NE 43rd St. to NE 45th St. It will be 60 percent bigger than the current museum, allowing us to decompress, expand in the future, and properly care for our collections, as well as provide space for more student research and visiting scholars. But more importantly, the new building will break down the barriers that separate the public from collections and research, inviting everyone to see and participate in the discovery that happens here every day.
What do you hope that visitors to the Burke take away from the experience?
I hope people feel more connected to the world around them after visiting the Burke. For the future of this planet, I hope people will see they are part of the environment—that land, water, plants, animals, and people are all connected.