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The opening of the We are Puget sound exhibit features orca fins peeking out of the water in the Puget Sound.

New exhibit opens at the Burke with interactive stations

Exhibit highlights people and ideas that are restoring and protecting the Salish Sea

Whether you’ve explored tide pools teeming with life, spotted a seal on a beach walk or chowed down on fresh salmon, chances are that Puget Sound’s diverse ecosystem has enriched your life in a myriad of ways. Using interactive stations, digital media and specimens from its vast collection, the Burke Museum aims to immerse visitors in the Salish Sea (the indigenous term for the area) through its newest exhibit, We Are Puget Sound, based on Braided River’s book of the same name. 

Choose your own adventure

A photograph of orca fins jutting out of the water greets you as you enter the exhibit. Turn left to learn about the Native cultures who have stewarded this region since time immemorial, or turn right to start with the wildlife who make their homes here. Don’t worry, the exhibit winds in a horseshoe shape so you won’t miss anything. 

Melissa Kennedy, Burke’s Director of Interpretation, knows that engaging young audiences requires interaction. She notes “Museums often lean on just looking, but not touching or hearing.” 

Set against a backdrop of swimming whale pods projected onto an orca silhouette, visitors can touch replicas of orca teeth and begin to grasp differences between the transient, resident and offshore ecotypes caused by their diets. Next door, compose your own whale song by pressing buttons that play excerpts of different pod vocalizations.

Elements from Burke’s collection enhance the interactive components. A steller sea lion’s skull gives you a sense of the size of a transient orca’s prey, while prehistoric geoduck relatives juxtaposed against a modern specimen show how similar these giant clams remain after thousands of years of evolution. 

Emboldening future stewards

The exhibit doesn’t sugarcoat the risks humans pose to Puget Sound. A net full of plastic waste looms over a photo of trash collected on one beach, in one day. Turn a dial-controlling light that demonstrates how toxins migrate up the food chain to apex predators (including people). 

Take a look at the nearby time-lapse video of stormwater gushing into the ocean — it’s a striking reminder to heed those storm drain warnings that read “Dump No Waste, Drains to Puget Sound.” 

Ready to see the (literal) light? Head to the brightly lit window display that reads “Act Now” and page through a touch-screen display with 10 actions you can take to help mitigate human damage and protect Puget Sound for future generations. Fill out a pledge card with one that seems doable for your family and hang it on the display, then create a rubbing on a postcard to take home as a memento. 

Starting in July, local scientists and community members will host talks in this gathering space to promote further learning about Puget Sound and how we can protect it. Keep an eye on the Burke Museum calendar for the upcoming schedule.

Learn about the original Puget Sound caretakers

Describing the feeling at the heart of this exhibit, Kennedy observed, “If you love and understand something, you’re more invested in caring for it.” No one embodies this sentiment more than Native tribes, such as the Sklallam and Squaxin Island peoples, who have cared for the Salish Sea for thousands of years and continue to do so today. 

In the cultural segment of the exhibit, observe how Indigenous people have fished sustainably to keep salmon populations healthy and used natural materials like cattail to weave baskets. Their deep-rooted relationship with the land continues today through environmental advocacy (such as Sally Brownfield’s work for their native Olympia oyster) and the practice of traditions such as the annual Canoe Journey. 

Budget about 30 minutes for your visit before heading out to connect what you’ve learned with other museum galleries. Marvel at the skull of a baleen whale (also found in Puget Sound), learn about how Native tribes are preserving traditional food gathering methods and climb on a kid-size orca in the third-floor play area. 

Know before you go:

  • Location: The Burke Museum is located at 4303 Memorial Way Northeast on the University of Washington campus. You’ll find the We Are Puget Sound exhibit on the north side of the second floor. 
  • Hours: The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and until 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. We Are Puget Sound runs from June 3 to December 31. 
  • Cost: Entrance to We Are Puget Sound is included with museum admission, which costs $22 for adults and $14 for non-UW students and youth ages 4-17. Free admission for children ages 3 and under plus UW students and faculty. The museum welcomes the public for free on the first Thursday of the month. Check their website for more available discounts
  • Parking: Limited parking is available in the N1 lot adjacent to the museum for $4/hour on weekdays. On Saturdays, parking is $6 until 12 p.m. and free after 12 p.m. and on Sundays. Access the museum via bus, bike or a short walk from the U District Light Rail station. 

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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 on Instagram @suitcasesinseattle