For members, the Burke Museums Behind the Scenes Night is a chance to explore usually unseen specimen collections. But for the staff and students volunteering as experts for the night, its a big natural science show and tell — and they do it well.
These experts’ talents shone Jan. 25 as Burke members spent the better part of three hours strolling from room to room in the museums usually private work areas, inspecting exhibits close up and asking any questions they want.
“I have a dream job, I know,” quipped Jonathan Calede, a doctoral student in biology who was showing off Miocene-era fossils between 10 million and 50 million years old as children peered and posed questions. He was a dinosaur fan as a child, like so many visiting that evening. And though these particular specimens were a few million years short of dinosaur status, passers-by were nonetheless impressed.
A table nearby sported the extraordinary 6-foot fossilized skeleton of a 10 million-year-old sea lion found in Grays Harbor in 1983, which drew attention all evening long. These sights were in the Archaeology Room, which greeted visitors with a sign proclaiming “Step back in time to the Miocene – 5 to 75 million years ago! When the climate in Washington was wetter and warmer than today! The evidence is inside!”
Across the hall, Sydney Kaser, an undergraduate student, told members about Nellie, the museums 2,000-year-old mummy (encased in a 3,000-year-old sarcophagus). She asked children if they saw anything unusual toward the bottom of the mummy, and they spoke up, pointing. “Thats right,” Kaser said. “She has no feet!”
Next door, Bruce Crowley, a fossil preparator for the Burke, chatted with visitors as he painted details on a 6-foot ichthyosaur likeness that will be used for a childrens play area. He wore a shirt he crafted himself, covered with colorful dinosaur illustrations.
Up the hall in the spiders and insects room, Rod Crawford, Burke curator of arachnids, chatted with visitors as he stood alongside display cases containing frighteningly big spiders as well as other bugs, bees and butterflies. “Its unadvisable to hold spiders when you have long sleeves,” he said, when the talk turned to spider-handling. “Because its hard to get them off the cloth.” If upset, he said, theyll cling to the cloth “like a frightened kitten.”
Crawford also was pleased to show off a collection of swallowtail butterflies that he felt had been particularly well mounted. Its not easy, he said, adding that such specimens disintegrate quickly if not handled properly.
Kennewick Man — a cast of his cranium, that is — was the main attraction in another room. Burke representatives there talked about his controversial history and mentioned that when scanning media for reports on the specimen, they have to skip over such current headlines as “Kennewick man charged with murder.” Not their Kennewick man, of course.
In a room for plant collections, visitors saw a big map of the state of Washington with a dot for every site where specimens had been collected. “Weve covered a lot of the state,” said David Giblin, a Burke collections manager. “But if you look at any one place, youll see that theres a lot more to cover.”
In a room dedicated to birds, Charlie Wright talked about the sapsucker woodpecker, which goes after live trees, unlike other woodpeckers, and always comes back to the same hole, ultimately forming an exact-looking circular hole. “Theyre kind of OCD that way,” he said as visitors gathered near. “Its not very good for the tree, but the tree usually survives.”
And of course, children were everywhere, peering through magnifying glasses and microscopes on tip-toe and looking down on tables of specimens from atop adult shoulders. In the archaeology area, they held “passports” where they marked off each room they visited.
Four-year-old Linus Nauman, sticking close to his father, Mike, said he liked “the dinos” best of all that he had seen. Dad agreed, saying it was exciting to see all the collections laid out for inspection.
Katelyn Kauffman, 11, pronounced the evening “awesome.” She was there with her uncle, Ken Droker, and his daughter Jenna, who is 8. “It was cool that they had a lot of skeletons that were dead but looked alive,” Katelyn said.
Her uncle said “the whole thing” was great, but he was particularly impressed when it turned out that Adelina Prentice, a paleontology graduate student acting as docent, had actually discovered one of the species she was displaying (a very Burke Museum moment).
The visitors trickled in the front door and down the stairs to the many offices and work rooms where Burke experts for the evening waited. When done, they slowly filed back up and out, many visiting the permanent collections before leaving, wrapping up another Behind the Scenes Night.
Anthropology Collections Manager Becky Andrews may have summed up the experience when she enthusiastically told a group of visitors early on, “Oh, you came on the best night!” Indeed they did.
The UW community gets free admission to the Burke every day, but there are still benefits to becoming a member, said MaryAnn Barron Wagner, the museums director of communications. Members get invitations to special exhibit previews, lectures and other special events. And of course they get into Behind the Scenes Night. “People join just for this event,” she said, “and they come again and again.”
You can learn more about the Burke Museum and its programs — and become a member — at its website.
- Burke Public Relations and Outreach Coordinator Julia Swan assisted with this story.