Cleaning Up the Burke

A prof's notes are seized, and the UW museum's fossil records are studied.

More than three years after Seattle Weekly broke the news of scientific funny business among the fossil collections at the University of Washington's Burke Museum, it's beginning to look like the authorities are back in control, and the confusion and suspicion surrounding the collections is gradually being dispelled.

The key step back to credibility took place Jan. 19, when two UW police officers went to the home of retired paleontologist John M. Rensberger to demand custody of 35 years' worth of his fossil-collecting notes. With the assistance of these notes, says the museum's director, Julie Stein, a part-time team of graduate students under the direction of new vertebrate paleontologist curator Christian Sidor has made a start matching each Burke fossil with Rensberger's notes on the date and location of collection, so as to determine whether said fossil was collected legally or not. (Rensberger applied for collecting permits only about four times in 30 years in the field.)

To pay for the cleanup, the UW's division of Arts and Sciences came up with a special grant of $100,000, which Dean of Science Ron Irving hopes will be enough to complete the job, hopefully by the end of 2006. At that point, too, most of the people upon whose lands the Burke fossils were illegally collected should have been notified and asked what disposition they want made of the ill-gotten booty.

If all goes as planned, the cleanup should restore the Burke to the trust and good graces of the professional paleontology community worldwide. Locally, however, a discomfort continues to trouble the Burke's reputation. The scandal about Rensberger's unorthodox and ill-documented collecting methods first broke in 2002. But it very rapidly became clear that these field trips, to the federal lands of the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon and the Hell Creek Formation in Montana, had been going on for years, decades in fact.

Now, thanks to a timeline provided by a UW professor, created to document another Burke matter, we've learned that the Burke's first collections manager, Terry Frest, was voicing suspicion and complaints about the integrity of Rensberger's fossil collection as early as 1989 and had accumulated evidence to support his claim. The same timeline, obtained by Seattle Weekly under the state Open Public Records Act, shows that Frest's suspicions were conveyed to Darrel Cowan, dean of Rensberger's home department of geology. In 1990, the same charges were conveyed to the new director of the Burke, Karl Hutterer, to no apparent effect. The same charges were aired once more in 1996 at a meeting with Hutterer and the associate dean of Arts and Sciences, Arthur Grossman. Again, no action was taken. (Hutterer has declined repeated requests to confirm or deny these facts.)

By 2004, the situation could no longer be ignored. Confronted with misuse of UW property, complaints of abusive behavior from both staff and students, and documented breaches of federal collection rules, Rensberger was persuaded to retire from UW and his curatorial post at the Burke. Simultaneously, the Burke was in search of a new director. David Hodge, dean of Arts and Sciences, decided the Burke situation had to be sanitized if the new administration there was to have any credibility within the profession.

The new vertebrate paleo curator was Sidor, a young scientist untouched by the Burke scandal. The institution's new director, Stein, had served as a Burke archaeology curator during the years the scandal was festering, from 1990 to 1999, but she firmly asserts that she never heard so much as a rumor about the situation during that decade. When reminded of a fellow curator's attempt to talk to her about it, she now recalls, "It was in the parking lot. I was not paying attention. I did not see how it applied to me at all."

Perhaps. The question for those outside the university milieu must remain: How was it that repeated charges of possibly felonious behavior, supported by evidence, along with evidence of falsification of scientific records, repeatedly were brushed aside until a public scandal forced authorities to look into the matter?

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