After Washington lawmakers closed the Legislative session last month without passing the $4 billion capital budget, many state-funded projects now hang in the balance. Among the projects awaiting funding is the new Burke Museum project on the University of Washington campus, which just received a loan of $14 million from the university to help the project continue through October.

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, founded in 1885, was designated the Washington State Museum in 1899 and has since outgrown its current location on the UW campus.

“The museum was created to take care of the state’s collection, and we can’t do that in this building any longer,” said Dr. Julie Stein, the executive director for the Burke Museum.

The $99 million project for a new museum broke ground last May in what used to be the parking lot of the existing Burke building at the corner of Northeast 45th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast.

At 113,000 square feet, the new Burke building has been designed with the idea of 20 years of growth in mind, Stein said, adding that the new building will have 66 percent more space than the current location, which is 69,000 square feet.

“The building now was not designed to house collections, it was designed for a museum and nothing more. No museum person ever looked at this building,” Stein said.

The current building also lacks features such as climate control that are needed to properly store artifacts.

Architect Tom Kundig, a University of Washington graduate, has designed the new building to reflect the characteristics of a forest. Through focus groups, museum staff discovered that what most people dislike about gallery spaces are how dark they are. To allow for more light, Kundig’s design includes long windows that transcend all three floors at each of the four compass points.

The elongated windows are similar to trees, Stein explains, adding that after the collection has been moved to the new building and the old Burke Museum has been torn down, the area will be landscaped with plants native to the Northwest, including Douglas firs and cedars.

With broad open spaces, the museum hopes that the museum will serve as a “gateway” from the community to the university, Stein said, adding that the main entrance also faces the future light rail terminal a block and a half away.

The project is also an opportunity to implement an “inside out” museum model, Stein said. The idea for the project came from the question ‘What is the most special thing about the Burke?’ Stein said the answer was clearly the museum’s collections, which prompted the question ‘So why aren’t we sharing any of that?’ she added.

In the current building, only 30 percent of the museum is open to the public. The new three-story building aims to double that by combining exhibit spaces with research labs and storing the collections in spaces that are visible to visitors.

To test out the new design, the Burke opened its exhibit “Testing, Testing 1-2-3” in June to give a behind the scenes look at what happens in the museum beyond its exhibits and gallery spaces.

The exhibit features visible labs that allow viewers to see what the curators, students and volunteers do to prepare the collections before they are displayed.

Since opening in June, the exhibit has given viewers the opportunity to watch workers as they number and catalogue mammal bones, clean and remove rock from various fossils, prepare specimens to be added to the collection and 3-D scan and print a Columbian mammoth skeleton.

On Aug. 12, the museum added to the exhibit a 3,000-pound Tyrannosaurus rex skull discovered by museum paleontologists last summer. This skull is the 15th to be discovered.

The exhibit is as much an opportunity for the staff to try out the new design as it is the visitors, Stein said, adding that the staff are now getting a sense for what it’s like to work while “on display.”

“The first reaction [of the visitors] is human-to-human connection,” Stein said, adding that the sliding doors that separate the visitors from the labs were at first seen as an invitation to open the doors, and that it was a learning point for the museum to discover what boundaries need to be imposed.  

The visible labs also offer more space for many of the employees, as much of the work on the collections was typically conducted in a small space in the basement.

In the new Burke museum, figuratively speaking, there will be no “basement,” Stein said, “anyone who works here, works there” she added, indicating a visible lab.

The visible lab exhibit and testing of the new model will likely continue through next summer, she said. The new building is estimated to open in 2019, however, the uncertainty of when state funds will be available may push the grand opening back.

Of the total $99 million budget for the project, $54 million was to be funded by the state and $24 million of that is still tied up in the yet-to-be passed capital construction budget.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t want to give it, it’s a much bigger political issue,” Stein said.

The University of Washington helped the museum obtain a loan for $14 million to keep the project going through October and finish the exterior of the building.

This will at the very least offer a better stopping point, Stein said, adding that had the museum not received the loan they would have had to “saran wrap” the entire project.

Many of the donors for the project have also called to offer an expedited payment of their donations, which staff has scheduled throughout three years.

“The community said very loud and clear “We’re with you, we want this project to happen,’” Stein said.