Everyone I know had never heard of it. There were no natural history museums in Seattle- it's a shame. Especially since it's the kind of museum I really enjoy. Art museums are fine, but I just don't get into them. Natural history museums I do.
Well, turns out there is one in Seattle, a few blocks from where I used to live. (It was being extensively renovated when I was last in Seattle and was closed to the public.) The Burke Natural History Museum was quite interesting, and bonus- it's open till 8 and free every first Thursday of the month.
After an extensively long day, of five buses and job interviews and medical exams, I finally reached the Burke. (Had my first ultrasound of my arteries since the stroke last Easter. Everything looks great.) The museum entrance is closely guarded by totem poles and totem whales, giving a glimpse of the extensive bottom floor devoted to Pacific Rim cultures- the only permanent part of the museum. I particularly enjoyed the homages to Samoan, Maori, and Hawaiian societies. The Maori brought fond memories to mind of Whale Rider, one of the finest movies ever made. However, despite the wide variety of religious expressions presented, there was sadly a dearth of information on the Christian societies of the Philippines, Korea, or Hawaii- almost as if indigenous Asian cultures must be non-Christian.
Upstairs the exhibits constantly change. There was a whole hall of artwork from Tibet, but again, it was art. What really fascinated me was the trip through time in Washington, beginning 545 mya. Burke has really done an excellent job at this, showing how Washington has changed through the years, beginning when it was all ocean, through the merging of microcontinents, to the formation of major glaciers over much of the state. Through it all they have representative animal and plant fossils and casts, really bringing to life, and death, the reality of the previous worlds.
A few hundred million years ago brings giant life-size Stegosaurus and Triceratops skeletons, a rare collection of perfectly formed dinosaur eggs, still in the next, and countless (to me more interesting) fossils of marine invertebrates. There were some amazingly perfect Crinoidea fossils, so lifelike it looked like they were still waving their fronds in an ancient ocean of stone.
A few million years after that there is the giant Missoula ice dam to the East, when Seattle is covered by 3,000 feet of ice. Then the ice dam breaks, sending 45 mph floods of thousands of tons of water over Washington State, scouring the plains into the scablands, 100s of times. It left unique rectangular valleys (rather than the V-valleys of rivers or the U-valleys of glaciers), unexplainable for a long time. The floods moved 9 cubic miles of water/hour, more than all the rivers of the world combined. Most of Eastern Washington and parts of Oregon were completely flooded. Geologist Harlen Bretz had to fight for decades to convince the geological community that this was caused by floods- the largest in the world for which we have evidence.
At this time you round the corner and are confronted with a 10,000-year-old mastodon, about to attack you. Further up and further in are the skeleton of a 20,000-year-old saber-toothed tiger having a 12,000-year-old giant sloth over for dinner, with a side of fava beans. (I guess saber-tooths lived a really long time.)
Burke is to be congratulated with really engaging all levels of visitors into this exhibit. There are special features for children, and the combination of a "time machine" in different stages, with replicas and actual fossils, gives an incredibly clear picture of life 100s of millions of years ago. It's the kind of place where you can get lost for hours, noticing the details of the life once around you, contemplating the way things once were.