Signs of Evolution

When Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park in the late '80s, he created dinosaurs that had traits scientists were just starting to discover existed. Instead of being the pea-brained, cold-blooded lizards we'd come to expect, the dinos in his book were warm-blooded, quick, and agile -- all the better to terrorize humans.

But as hot a commodity as the dinosaur has been in the last few years, it isn't always capable of drawing a crowd. Driving south on Federal Highway in Dania Beach, for example, it's hard not to notice the brown-and-off-white, two-story building on the left. Attached to its facade is a huge model of a velociraptor, as well as three-foot-tall letters declaring: The Graves Museum of Archaeology and Natural History. But visitors aren't exactly arriving in droves. The problem? Location.

"We're stuck down here in Dania, a corner between Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood," says museum director Bob Kelly. "People don't think in terms of coming down here."

Perhaps they should. Where else in South Florida can you see a $10,000 cast of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull, which the staff affectionately calls Stan? Or a nearly complete Edmontosaurus skeleton, which will stand 25 feet tall when assembled? Dinosaurs are just part of the collection. Right now, in fact, the dinosaur bones are in the touring-exhibit hall awaiting their own space, which they'll get once remodeling of the second floor more than doubles the exhibition area of the 14,000-square-foot museum. Construction is scheduled to begin in January, but there's already plenty to see.

Near the touring-exhibit space, an L-shaped room houses geology, paleontology, and anthropology exhibits, the last of which contains casts of the skulls of Java, Peking, Steinheim, Neanderthal, Rhodesian, and Cro-Magnon men. In that order the head shapes progress from apelike to human, illustrating the evolution of mankind. In fact the museum's focus was cultures, not creatures, when it was founded in 1980 by Gypsy Graves, an archaeologist and member of the Broward County Archaeological Society. "The reason we present so many cultures," she wrote, "is [that] it enables us... to better understand (and enjoy) our similarities and differences."

Visitors can appreciate the differences among African, Egyptian, Mediterranean, pre-Columbian, and native Florida peoples. In the African exhibit, a diorama depicts a man draped in animal hides drawing water out of the soil through a strawlike object, with which he will funnel the water into an ostrich egg. Instant canteen.

A dugout canoe made by the Tequesta Indians is the highlight of the Florida display. Most of the tribe, which inhabited South Florida from 3500 B.C. until A.D. 1760, was wiped out by explorers. The rest may have used canoes like the one on view to flee to Cuba. The larger pre-Columbian exhibition covers many native cultures, including those that existed in Central and South America before Columbus' voyage in 1492.

The museum itself made a relatively recent voyage. Its collections used to occupy a storefront in Fort Lauderdale but were moved to the larger building in Dania Beach five years ago. A former biologist, Kelly came on board in January 1997 and found what he says was a stagnating facility. Since then the gift shop has been renamed Treasures From the Dig, and Kelly has already upped youth attendance by bringing in school field trips. Outreach has also included the addition of intern volunteers from Florida Atlantic University.

"It's been exciting growth," says Kelly. "The museum sat very stagnant, very still for a long time. It's growing steadily."

-- Carol Porter

The Graves Museum of Archaeology and Natural History is located at 481 S. Federal Hwy., Dania Beach. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Admission prices range from $4 to $6. Call 954-925-7770.

 
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