Your guide to a kid-friendly city
Photos by Jasmin Thankachen
By Jasmin Thankachen
Published June 2022
Updated June 30, 2022
How big is a cubic foot? It’s about the size of a large travel bag.
The “life” that you might find in your carry-on — crushed goldfish crackers, diapers, bottles, pacifiers, burp cloths and an endless supply of masks and hand sanitizer — are not things that you’ll find at this fascinating new exhibit at the Burke Museum in Seattle. You’re in for so much more! A true glimpse into the world around us: “Life in One Cubic Foot,” open through July 17, 2022.

“Life in One Cubic Foot” is the newest installation at the Burke Museum and is a unique look at what life exists in various environments around the world, from the coral reefs of French Polynesia to Seward Park, in Seattle’s very own backyard.
This traveling Smithsonian exhibit contains amazing photographs by scientist and photographer, David Liittschwager, as well as samples of organisms and examples of tools used to conduct these survey experiments. There are plenty of models, videos and interactive stations to keep the whole family engaged.
Entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by an enormous mural. It may seem like just a piece of wall art to a passerby, but after taking a closer look, you’ll see that there are organisms of all different types. Tiny crabs, colorful fish, sea stars and so much more!
It is extraordinary to find so many organisms from a small sample size. Just as the scientists learned, you’ll discover the immense amount of known and unknown organisms in various environments and how they were documented. The exhibit will make you think about how global warming and human activity affect these very important ecosystems.

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Turn the corner and explore many more large posters of plants and animals, all with descriptions of where the samples are from and details about the area’s biodiversity.
Visit the clear installations exhibiting samples of reef residents. Spy the Clearfin Lionfish or the Chocolate Cowrie, all found off the Pacific Island of Mo’orea.
Study the collaboration between Biocode scientists and local experts, working together to understand each collections.

Underwater life

Learn what lies beneath the water’s surface in the ocean’s mid and deep waters. Cold and dark, it extends between the ocean’s surface and down to the floor, somewhere we don’t normally dive down to explore. You can’t catch these creatures in nets; they are too delicate. But you can observe them through the eyes of a rover and a biocube.
Touch a model of a tiny creature found beneath the ocean surface and observe some of the examples of species found in the Pacific Ocean, a thousand feet below the surface.

Interactive exhibits

Children will have fun, exploring all the colorful pictures, touch stations and hands-on activities. It’s a great space to play “I Spy.” Kids will enjoy the “What can you find?” search-and-find located in the center of the exhibit. Look through the magnifying glass at the top and side of the cube and find the Largemouth Bass or the Duckweed plant. The cube is a model of plants and animals found in the Genesee River in Rochester, New York.
Take a rest and sit in the imagination space (shaped like a biocube!) and illustrated in a PNW theme by Sami Chang, a Science Illustrator focusing on Marine Ecology. Read, draw, color or use the space to get those wiggles out. Look through the book, A World in One Cubic Foot, detailing Liitschwager’s astounding photography. See which animals you can find in the exhibit.

Connecting Seattle to the science

The Burke is not only featuring the awesome work of Smithsonian scientists, but connecting the ongoing research and partnership with the University of Washington. Discover how researchers use cutting edge technology and DNA to study and survey organisms through water samples. Hint: It has to do with poop. In another exhibit find out what organisms might be found in a bottle of water! (You may not want to know!)
Learn about the organisms that live in Puget Sound’s eelgrass. Children will love the large screens of eelgrass floating in the water. Pay close attention to the fish that zip by!

Stop to see the research from Seward Park, too! Guess what plants and animals you might find in this old-growth forest park, then check out the mural of photographs and models to see how many you got right!

You can be a scientist, too!

The exhibit also shows you how to conduct the biocube experiment in your own backyard or park. Observe and share your findings with iNaturalist, a science based community that helps researchers with the collection and survey of plant and animal life. A hands-on project and a great way to take what you learned and apply it to your own surroundings.

The rest of the museum

The Burke Museum is one of my favorite museums in Seattle because of all the interesting facts about the land, communities, and nature. The installations are grand and the colors are vibrant.
Explore the rest of the museum and observe real scientists at work! On this trip I watched a researcher examine several slides under a microscope. Another scientist was cataloging hummingbird wings that were pinned to a board, while another was brushing off debris from a dinosaur bone!

These windows into the working world of science are truly special and unique. Don’t miss the exhibit on landfills, the Native American installations on the first floor, gems, and all the animal bones on display around the museum.

Stop, play, eat

There are many areas of the museum to stop and play or to take a rest. Areas on the second floor have benches and places to sit and color, while open spaces  in the back of the museum allow room for more activity.
Food isn’t allowed on the upper levels or near the lower level exhibits, but you can dine with your own lunch in the Cascade Room and outside on the steps of the Burke Yard. Food and drink are also available from the on-site cafe, Off the Rez Café.
Hot tip: The fry bread in every flavor is amazing as are the chili, tacos and rice bowls.

Who would have thought that using something as simple as an open box would help discover so many more plants and organisms than we had ever imagined. Scientists say that there are over one million species still unknown or unnamed by scientists. Slowly, but surely and with citizen science we can all participate in learning and identifying more and more specimens using the biocube.
An amazing exhibit to share with family and friends, I’m looking forward to visiting this new exhibit with my children and hope to take what we learned home with us. Maybe we’ll have a chance to observe what there might be in our own backyard, in one cubic foot.

Know before you go:

  • The Burke Museum is in a beautiful new building located at: 4300 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle
  • Paid parking is available on-site. When school is in session, go early to find a spot
  • Life in One Cubic Foot is at the museum through July 17
  • Entry into the special exhibit is included with regular museum admission or membership
  • Educators are encouraged to visit the exhibit and take advantage of field trips to the museum. Contact the education department for more information.
  • The exhibit is ideal for science-loving families, children ages 5+
  • Younger children will enjoy the murals and interactive sections
  • Visit the Burke website for more information on Covid-19 rules, admission and membership
  • Learn more about how to build your own biocube at home

Originally  published Feb. 17, 2022

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Jasmin is the Associate Publisher at Seattle's Child and an Eastside mom of two boys. She enjoys parenting with lots of love and laughter. Co-Founder of PopUp StoryWalk, she also loves children's picture books, essay writing, and community stories.
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