Bones of Contention

The battle for the soul of the Graves Museum isn't over yet, and Gypsy Graves herself is back in the trenches

There probably isn't a square foot of the Florida Keys that hasn't been trod upon by someone at one time or another. As far as terra firma is concerned, the Keys are about as undiscovered as I-95.

But when you're talking shells, both living and long dead, the island chain is more like the dark side of the moon. A mile from any T-shirt shack, one can find specimens that are unknown to science and thus unnamed. No one knows what's there because it's never been properly mapped.

That's where Dr. Ed Petuch comes in. "Believe it or not, for all the people living down there, there have been no papers written about the different molluscan communities," says Petuch, a geology professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Gypsy Graves wants to return to the institution that has her name on it
Joshua Prezant
Gypsy Graves wants to return to the institution that has her name on it

With the aid of a grant from the National Science Foundation, Petuch is planning to fill the Florida Keys molluscan knowledge void. And he's the scientist to do it. He has a doctorate in oceanography from the University of Miami, he's conducted research on collections kept at the Smithsonian Institution, he worked at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and he is an associate at the Field Museum in Chicago. He has discovered and named nearly a thousand new species of shells -- half of them living, half fossilized. (Most people in his field specialize in one or the other.)

If Petuch gets funding for his Keys study, he plans to take his shells straight to the Field Museum, which will make the Windy City the repository of rare and important shells collected in Florida. The choice of museums is odd because, in addition to his numerous other positions, Ed Petuch is the only paid scientist on the staff of the Graves Museum of Archaeology & Natural History in Dania Beach.

So why won't this South Florida geologist take his precious slice of South Florida's natural history to the South Florida museum that employs him?

"I cannot get those people off their asses to make it a real museum," Petuch grumbles.

A harsh assessment of an institution with roots that go all the way back to 1959 -- almost antiquity in South Florida -- and a large, dedicated following of employees and volunteers who have donated countless hours to preserving this area's history. It's also a bold statement, considering that the Graves Museum, the only natural history museum in South Florida, counts among its collection thousands of priceless pre-Columbian artifacts and one of the world's most important dinosaur skeletons. Nonetheless, it's an opinion shared by many, including the woman whose name is on the building.

Three years ago the museum's board of governors parted ways with its eponymous director, Gypsy Graves, and severed ties with the Broward County Archaeological Society (BCAS), the organization of avid amateur archaeologists and paleontologists that owned the place until 1996. It was a bloodless coup: The new regime cleaned house and changed the locks. They publicly thanked Graves for her hard work, then proclaimed it was time to focus on running the place more like a business than a hobby.

"We all said she had "founder's syndrome,'" says one Graves employee, who asked not to be named, of the ousted director. "She wouldn't let go."

But the new leaders lost more than a local archaeological legend when they shuffled Graves out the door; they also lost the support of the BCAS, whose members believe they were tricked into relinquishing control of the place, and the respect of many people who passionately believe that museums should put science before entertainment.

Now the society is preparing a lawsuit against the museum, seeking to force its way back into a leadership role. A victory for the society would put an end to the maddening irony of Gypsy Graves' exile from the museum that bears her name. Graves herself is helping lead the charge.

Ed Petuch, for one, will be rooting for the plaintiffs. "Mostly [the new leaders] don't even know what they're doing," he says. "These people do not know how to run a museum. Gypsy did."

Gypsy Graves likes to be outside. So despite the lingering heat of a late October day and the drone of traffic from nearby I-95, she ushers a visitor to the back porch of her home on the New River in Dania Beach. "I have always had an interest in anything outdoors," she says in her soothing Kentucky drawl. "Geology, biology, archaeology. My anthropology teacher told me nobody in their right mind would want to be an archaeologist, because you are out in the heat and the rain and the bugs all the time. That's for me."

She pulls up a chair to face the river and puts a pack of Virginia Slims 120s and a lighter within easy reach on the patio table. Graves is not a talkative woman; in quiet moments she lights up a smoke and stares out at the river. But she is energetic. Realizing she has brewed coffee but forgotten to serve it, she almost jumps out of her chair and bounds to the kitchen, muttering an apology that gets lost in the white noise of her back yard. She's 70 years old and walks with a stoop, but neither characteristic slows her down.

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