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The Museum

The landscape of presentation, the selective facts that drive inquisition, and the visual stimulus, combine in the best cases for endless learning. It can be overwhelming, for it’s easy to walk away with the impression of comprehending little and feeling exhausted for it.  People blame that feeling on standing on marble floors for hours on end. A fairer attribution would be to the revelations untangling in the carriage of their mind.

Museums, from the Greek Mouseion, were the place of the muses, the patrons of art. This congers inspiration – of imagination, of knowledge. Indeed we are lucky to have such tomes all over this world. Places were we celebrate, mourn, and most importantly understand art, history, and science. They used to be institutions of the wealthy, collections that humored, satisfied the required gentlemanly hobby. The enlightenment brought museums into the public eye in the 18th century.  It is a fair venture that we should be indebted to those who took the time to catalog the treasures we find within.

There are many benefits to having them. Beyond education of a general public, they also serve to maintain our necessity for comprehension. The paramount of an museum is not what you see in the display cases, the rotating and permanent exhibits. Behind the scenes is where the real magic and importance lies.

All share a meticulous and delicate process of cataloging and preserving everything them have. Every single item in a museum, natural history or otherwise, is priceless and irreplaceable. After all, no two items will be under the exact same environmental stresses. Just because you can go out and “get” another American Robin doesn’t mean it will hold the same information as another American Robin, even one born the same year and hatched nearby. And better yet, having two birds or rather two data points is infinitely better than one.  The same can be said of pennies minted in 1972 or a Peruvian blankets woven in 1775.

Being largely a blog about birds, science, and natural history, it is only appropriate to focus on a natural history museum in this discussion. Happily Seattle is blessed to have an extremely good one, housed on the University of Washington, the Thomas Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. These subjects might not seem relevant, however with only a little imagination comes a realization that human history is essentially a segment of natural history. Even if we behave as if we aren’t part of the cycle, a part of nature, doesn’t mean we really are after all.

Natural History Museums can range in size from places like the Smithsonian or the Chicago Field Museum to small private collections like the Murie Museum of the Teton Science School in Jackson, Wyoming. Collections are amassed by, well, by collecting.  People find specimens in the field by happenstance or search them out purposefully, both depend on being an expert. It only makes sense that in looking for a certain subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, that you know what to look for before you shoot.  Now-a-days, only experts are allowed, by permit to collect or posses almost any native bird in the United States (in other words, don’t get inspired to go out and collect bird feathers after reading this – per the Migratory Bird Act). And yes, there’s that gun thing. We’ll get to that later.

The Burke Museum was founded in 1885 by members of the University of Washington’s Young Naturalists Society. They erected a building of their own volition recognizing the need to properly house an increasing population of artifacts (unless something drastic happens, an active museum is always likely to grow, even burst at the seams). In 1899 it was deemed a state museum and in 1962 it received the current name, after a bequest after Judge Thomas Burke.

The museum itself is a lumbering, boxy building. It isn’t particularly eye catching or a testament to architecture. However that is not the point or intention. Efficiency of space is paramount – those collections from Native American artifacts to the Ornithology holdings – they need proper space, ventilation, and treatments – you can’t just pile things in a box and call it good.

On display are all the trappings of a typical array of showcases. To keep people interested in a world of media, there are the typical flashing lights, videos, and interactive pieces but upon entering, there is a long glass case filled with a sampling of all the Burke has to offer. Even after you’ve perused everything, you quickly realize there is a lot more in the building than the public space.

The ornithology collections at the Burke count among one of the largest in the country.  Not only are there bird skins but they hold soft tissue samples (the second largest collection in the world), skeletons, and eggs from the world’s avian diversity.  Thanks to their pioneering work, the Burke got an early start on the practice of creating spread wings from their specimens.  As a result they have the largest and likely fastest growing collection of spread wings, a valuable thing indeed. Once a bird has been dead awhile, rigor mortis sets in and you can no longer make a puppet of it, spreading wings or flexing feet.  To allow for study of things like molt in a bird’s wings (the most complicated and interesting area of study in molt), a wing is amputated, spread properly, and let to dry.

The mammalogy and ornithology departments share a prep room where they do the surprisingly clean job of preparing study skins. Collection expeditions can’t wait around, so they are done in the field but the museum takes window kills, the bird your cat caught, local collections, or birds someone found on the beach.  Bird preparation is a delicate process and although almost anyone can learn it, only someone with much experience will produce perfect skins.  However, they also scrub skeletons the Dermestid beetles colony hasn’t fully picked clean, (any respectable museum has a colony of these beetles to clean bones of any ligament or hide) and take tissue samples here.

So museums exist, they are meticulous storehouses of historical information, and some are natural history museums.  But haven’t we moved beyond shooting birds?  We’ve binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras, video, all at our disposal.  John James Audubon and other naturalists of his time had no choice if they wanted to really understand the species they studied because these advanced optics weren’t available.  Is it really necessary now?

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