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

Meanwhile the BCAS was sitting on more than 30 years' worth of artifacts dug up around South Florida, plus items collected by its 100-plus members in their own travels. The society had a treasure trove of everything from pre-Columbian pottery to fossilized camel skeletons to Tequesta Indian artifacts. What the group did not have was a decent place to store and display this material.

In 1980 the society had obtained a tiny 1700-square-foot storefront on the south side of the New River where the parking lot for the Broward County Jail is today. The place was barely big enough to house the volunteers who staffed it, but it was a start.

A collection of curiosities or a center of scientific endeavor?
Joshua Prezant
A collection of curiosities or a center of scientific endeavor?
Taxidermist Michael Vaden's handiwork prowls all over the Graves
Joshua Prezant
Taxidermist Michael Vaden's handiwork prowls all over the Graves

The BCAS asked Graves to be the museum director. Having never done anything like that in her life, she naturally accepted. Only then did she set about learning how to run a museum. "We started out the first three months sitting on the floor talking and bringing in museum professionals to find [out] what to do and how to develop it," she recalls.

The museum, then called simply the Broward County Archaeological Society, quickly outgrew the space; after five years the society moved across the New River to a building on Flagler Street. At 5000 square feet, it was a much larger space, and at a rent of $2 per year from the Broward County public school district, the price was right.

But the collection was growing too fast for even the new location to hold it -- thanks in no small part to the fruits of Graves' own adventures throughout the '80s. In 1992 Graves put up $250,000 of her own money to finance a mortgage for a 50,000-square-foot building on Federal Highway in Dania. "We just stuck out our necks and did it," she says, downplaying her own risk-taking through use of the plural. Their new home was an old pencil factory that had sat vacant for two years. BCAS volunteers (the society had no employee at the time) scrubbed an inch of dust off the floors and carted away tons of abandoned machinery in their yearlong process of turning the factory into a museum. It opened in October 1993.

Opening-night eve Gypsy and four others stayed up all night attending to last-minute details. After all, they were expecting Gov. Lawton Chiles. The next morning they instead received a Dania building inspector bearing bad news: too many code violations. The city couldn't let them open. Gypsy put in a call to the city manager and got a temporary certificate of occupancy. Chiles and other dignitaries showed up. The new Graves Museum of Archaeology & Natural History was in business.

Some people are so adept at motivating others they can make long hours for low or no pay seem like the Lord's work, substitute vision and opportunity for niceties like health insurance and retirement plans, and make you see the stars, even as your feet are planted in sawdust and covered in sweat. Those who worked at the museum in the old days unequivocally state that Gypsy Graves is just such a person.

"I was in there helping them build the place," recalls Ed Petuch. "It was 100 degrees at least; we were all stripped down to our bathing suits, working to set up the cabinets for months. I said, "Wow, here we really have a chance to do something important.'"

It was the right place and the right time. More than five million people lived in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, yet not a single museum of natural history (except, of course, the two earlier and much smaller BCAS operations) existed. To Petuch's way of thinking, that was a wrong he was working to right. "We should have one of the greatest museums in the country here," he says. "We deserve it."

They built forests, tepees, chickee huts, and canoes. They painted the walls with scenes depicting everything from the Everglades to Machu Picchu (a particularly intricate, beautiful mural). They concocted interesting and novel ways to present static items like ancient skulls and Native American pottery.

Tim Cummings is a carpenter who built many of the cabinets and display cases at the museum. No museum could exist without someone like him. "You could sense the electricity in the air," he remembers. "We were going to go someplace. We did something everyone thought was impossible -- we started with a factory and in one year turned it into a museum."

Cummings now lives in Atlanta, where he's a freelance display builder. He can build an artificial mountain or tell you more than you'd want to know about detailing the bark on a fake tree -- skills he sharpened under Graves' tutelage. "Gypsy is a leader," he says. "She's a little tiny duck, but she is a human powerhouse. She has the ability to inspire people and bring out the best in them."

At least as important as her leadership skills was Graves' joie de vivre. She liked to have fun, and Graves Museum parties were the stuff of legend. For her first Halloween bash in the new building, she brought in clowns, acrobats, and two live elephants parked in the lobby to greet guests. Each year for the Winterfest Boat Parade, museum workers would construct a giant dinosaur on a yacht and party their way down the New River. "We were enthusiastic, and we did have fun," she says. Then she pauses. "I don't see any joy down there now."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help