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New Burke Museum exhibit

"Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline" features a map of places in Washington where fossils have been found. (Photos by Natasha Dillinger)

New Burke Museum exhibit: ‘Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline’ blends art and science

This innovative, family-friendly exhibition is here for all of March and April.

Dr. Kirk Johnson, paleontologist and co-curator of the Burke Museum’s new exhibit “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline,” describes fellow curator and artist Ray Troll’s images as “extinct animals [that] visit the modern world in daydreams.” During a recent Q&A, Troll confided that while he’s parlayed his childhood love of drawing into a career, he still occasionally draws dinosaurs with crayons.

Kids are famous for accepting the surreal for the sake of a good story — it’s not uncommon for one of my daughter’s stories to include a dinosaur blasting off into space. We jumped at the chance to visit this exhibit, which imaginatively blends art and science into a family-friendly experience that’s on view until May 2.

Awed by the pachyrhinosaurus bursting through the wall.

Interact without touching

As a previous Seattle’s Child reviewer noted, touring the Burke COVID-style means postponing some of the beloved hands-on activities for another visit.

Luckily, this open-space exhibit offers opportunities to “touch with your eyes” as I like to tell my kids. You can’t miss a pachyrhinosaurus — a “horned lizard” found mostly in Alberta and Alaska — bursting through a wall as if it were headed for a snack on a cycad. An upside-down suciasaurus — Washington’s first dinosaur, which resembles a tyrannosaurus rex — cavorts with ammonites and invites visitors to turn their heads upside down to look it in the eye.

The story of the “deep-fried rhino” is irresistible to kids.

Kids with a funny bone will appreciate the tale of the Blue Lake Rhino: About 15 million years ago, an unsuspecting Diceratherium (an ancestor of the modern rhinoceros) grazed peacefully in a prairie near Lake Lenore. Unfortunately, lava from a volcanic eruption engulfed it, turning it into an upside-down deep-fried rhino and leaving behind a cave that was discovered in 1935.

The exhibit includes an artistic depiction of the ill-fated diceratherium, as well as a video installation next to a herd of cutouts that invites socially-distant wandering. My daughter’s favorite part of the story? The entrance to the cave is through the Diceratherium’s rear end. She couldn’t wait to share that fascinating fact at the dinner table after our visit.

While the original exhibit debuted in Anchorage and included an Alaskan fossil map, Troll created a localized version for the Burke’s museum visitors. One of our favorite features was the map with depictions of fossils found throughout Washington. Whether it’s the Seatac Sloth or the spike-toothed salmon (why isn’t that a school mascot?), families can look for prehistoric animals at all their favorite road-trip destinations. 

There’s more upstairs

Fossils from the Burke Museum’s extensive collection are displayed throughout the exhibit, including ammonites, mammoth teeth and a cast of the Blue Lake Rhino’s jawbone. These real-life examples, combined with interpretive signs, made it easier to connect some of the animals depicted in the exhibit with their modern-day descendants (like elephants, rhinos, hippos and manatees). 

After seeing the drawing of an elasmosaurus swimming around with ammonites and a vampire squid, my daughter loved seeing a skeleton replica hanging from the ceiling on the third floor. It helped emphasize the immense size of the prehistoric reptiles while the artistic rendition downstairs brought them to life. 

Viewing the crab concretions ready for prepping in the Burke’s third-floor lab.

The imaginative drawing “Cult of the Crab Concretions” features modern-day people appearing to munch on crabs preserved in sedimentary rock. Venturing to the third floor, visitors can observe these same fossils ready for examination in the lab at the top of the stairs (visit on Saturdays to view a live demonstration). These windows into a real workspace provide a COVID-friendly way to show that there is still so much more to discover about the species that roamed the earth before us.

At-home activities

For families who don’t yet feel comfortable heading to indoor attractions, or who want to extend their museum visit at home, the Burke offers a number of virtual experiences as well. 

On the “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” website, families can print out and color hats designed by Ray Troll to look like a suciasaurus or pachyrhinosaurus (but no bursting through walls, please). You can also check out videos with highlights from the exhibit and register for a virtual trip to Sucia Island State Park and the Stonerose Interpretive Center to see two of the featured paleontological sites. 

Coloring a pachyrhinosaurus hat designed by Ray Troll in front of the large replica.

Download a spectacular (and free!) curriculum packet developed by the Burke’s education team to supplement virtual learning. Opt for the “Whales” packet to learn more about whale ancestors, which feature prominently in this exhibit. Then try to spot some in the wild — spring is gray whale season in the Puget Sound area! Spice up your neighborhood walks by downloading “Mesozoic Monsters” for a scavenger hunt that helps illustrate dinosaur size through comparison to commonly found objects like telephone poles and stop signs.

During a post-visit information session, Johnson said the new Burke is about storytelling and connecting the dots. After traveling more than 10,000 miles with Troll in search of the stories of fossils, these artist-scientist friends have created an immersive experience that both sparks the imagination and nurtures curiosity about the natural history wonders throughout the museum.

New Burke Museum exhibit: visit details

Where: The Burke Museum is located on the University of Washington campus at 4300 15th Ave. N.E. in Seattle.

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” exhibit extends through May 2. 

Cost: Admission is $22 for adults, $14 for students and free for members, children 3 and under and UW faculty. Free admission is available (and hours extend until 8 p.m.) on the first Thursday of every month (March 4 and April 1 are the next options), and a number of discounts are available.

COVID protocols: Purchase timed entry tickets in advance (enter within the hour of your reservation). Masks are required for visitors over age 2. Physical distancing and group size limitations (maximum of five people) are in place to protect visitors and staff. View the full list of welcome-back guidelines here

This story was first published on March 4, 2021. 

About the Author

Natasha Dillinger

Natasha Dillinger is a Seattle mom who paused a career in accounting and finance to focus on showing her two young children around the Pacific Northwest. Follow their adventures near and far at suitcasesinseattle.wordpress.com and on Instagram (@suitcasesinseattle)