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

And then there was the matter of the Dead Sea scrolls.

In 1997 Graves pulled some strings and got permission to have a traveling exhibit on the ancient fortress of Masada stop in South Florida, in her museum, before returning to Israel. It was a real coup; the exhibit included ten of the original Dead Sea scrolls. To this day Graves believes the display would have brought thousands of people through the door -- she even made arrangements with Ticketmaster to help handle the throngs.

But the board of governors had something more paleontologic in mind, she recalls with more than a tinge of bitterness in her voice. "Bob Kelley and [then­ board president] Skip Johnston said, "If you want to do that, you get the money and do it yourself. We are going to do dinosaurs.' It was really the final blowup," she adds.

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

The ill will between Graves and Kelley boiled over shortly thereafter. In June 1997 when the board of directors met, they decided to bestow upon Graves the title of "distinguished founder," while stripping her of any meaningful role. Pascucci spoke in her defense at that meeting. "I argued that she should be given funding [for scientific research]. That kind of set me in the wrong light with some of the people on the board of governors. I was just trying to be fair. I was certainly by then seen as Gypsy's boy."

Her philosophical differences with the board, coupled with that body's overt attempts to muscle her out, became too much for Graves. In late 1997 she decided to pack it in. She asked for a couple days to get her things together, and the board of governors agreed, but before she was finished boxing up her things, she showed up one day and found the locks on the museum doors changed. Kelley had literally locked her out, fearing that Graves would take all of her extensive collection with her.

She sued in April 1998 and settled with the museum in mediation. Graves got $140,000 to compensate her for money she'd put up to buy the new building as well as a good portion of her artifacts, including a Constantine gold coin, a Byzantine oil lamp, a seal from the tomb of Rameses II, and the head of a sacred cow.

Graves hasn't been back to the museum since, except for a brief visit at a Halloween party in 1999. Administrators still call it the Graves Museum of Archaeology & Natural History on museum letterhead, but the word Graves is in type one-third the size of the other lettering.

She doesn't know what the place looks like on the inside anymore, and she doesn't like the way it looks on the outside. "It used to be sort of a basic pink with archways painted on it, very distinctive. Now it looks like a warehouse. I'm not impressed with it."

At the same time Graves was leaving, the BCAS itself was being shown the door, according to then­BCAS president Pascucci, through a bit of legal treachery on the part of their own lawyer.

Pascucci had just been elected president of the BCAS. By his understanding of the bylaws, that entitled him to a seat on the museum's board of directors. But Karl Adler, formerly the BCAS' attorney, now representing the museum, didn't see it that way. "At that time the board was voting on, how do I put this, on how to throw Gypsy out of the museum," Pascucci says. "They were concerned that, since I had a history of standing up for Gypsy, I would be a fly in the ointment. A week or so before that meeting, Karl Adler called me at home. He said, "I have looked over the bylaws, and you are really not entitled to automatic representation on the board.'"

Without a seat on the board, the BCAS suddenly had no say in museum affairs. From that point forward, they were effectively denied access to the collection they themselves had created.

Charles Zidar is an affable man, but if museum directors have an aura, he doesn't exude it.

Maybe it's his age. At 33 years old, there's just no way to achieve the rumpled-academic­meets­weather-beaten relic hunter look of, say, Sean Connery as Indiana Jones' dad. Maybe it's his clothing. His dress is casual, with his glasses around his neck on a string and the top few buttons of his plaid shirt undone, but in a very meticulous way. One might expect a museum director to look a touch disheveled. Or it could be his desk. Zidar looks a little lost behind the hulking wooden desk in the second-floor director's office. He tends to sit straight up in his chair, hands in his lap, as he talks.

Whether or not he looks the part, Zidar is the museum's director until the board of governors launches a search to replace Bob Kelley. In Zidar they have someone who knows the place. He's been there six years, serving as the assistant director for both Gypsy Graves and Kelley. And he's proud of what both his predecessors have accomplished. "Gypsy did a wonderful job of getting it to this point," he says, "but Gypsy wanted to do it all."

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