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

More important in these acrimonious times, the board has a director who thinks it might be time to patch up the relationship with the BCAS. "I would like to build a bridge with anyone who has been disenfranchised [from] the museum," says Zidar in his best directorspeak. But even he questions whether he's the one who can do it. "Sometimes I feel like my hands are tied," he says. "I've always been the number two man. Maybe I could start the bridge-building, but in a sense I am still the number two man, with the board in charge."

Walking a visitor through the museum, Zidar talks a lot about his plans -- big plans for such a little place. And the bean counter in him loves to point out how the museum has made do with very little.

"This only cost $4000," he says of the North American Hall, a corner of the museum that includes a view inside a tepee, a North Woods scene, and an unfinished pond from which stuffed eagles will take flight one day soon.

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

He'd like to raze some rundown houses the museum owns directly east of its building and add 30,000 square feet to the place. He'd like to transform the upstairs of the main building into an interactive, hands-on exhibit that walks visitors through the life of a paleontologist. He'd like to include a full-scale Tyrannosaurus rex in that second-floor display, but the ceiling might be too low. "It would have to be crouching like it's hunting or eating," he says.

Right now the museum looks a little rough around the edges. Some of the exhibits are small -- the Egypt display could fit in a typical family room. The occasional extension cord runs overhead. A room on the first floor has a big sign over the door proclaiming it the dinosaur room, but inside the space there's a display called "Silk and Steel," which is a collection of Chinese art and artifacts recently acquired by the museum. The dinosaurs are now upstairs on the cavernous second floor, which looks about half finished.

To help finance Zidar's vision of how the place should look, the museum is betting heavily on finding some corporate sponsorship. Current revenue streams just aren't getting it done -- last summer the museum had to let virtually its entire scientific staff go because of a lack of money. "We want to do more research, but our focus is not necessarily the science at this point. It's the kids and education things."

As if on cue, a tour group of elementary-school kids rushes by the Africa Hall, where Zidar is explaining the importance of school tours. Other than two such tours, the museum is almost empty. The tours are an important source of income but not a huge one: Almost half of the 65,000 patrons last year were school kids, earning the museum about $84,000. Museum officials also rent the place for parties and sleepovers, which put another $15,300 in the coffers. Every little bit counts.

State and local grants are also a big slice of the funding pie. Last year the museum landed a $500,000 grant to pay for improvements to the building, a good portion of which went for renovations to the second floor that nearly doubled the display space. It has also scored about $143,000 in grants from the Broward County Arts Council since 1998.

That helps. But for critics like Petuch, it's too little too late. The museum should be investing in science, he maintains, so it can justify going for big grant money -- millions of dollars -- from the deep pockets places like the National Science Foundation. "I know museums," he says. "I have worked at museums since I was a kid. It makes me very frustrated. They just don't listen."

Real museums, Petuch asserts, are not sideshows that must bring people in the door to survive. "You're lucky [if the sum of admissions] pays the overhead," he snorts. Scientific endeavor brings with it credibility and respect, he says, which begets notoriety, which begets more grant funding.

But first you have to be serious about science, and the Graves Museum, he asserts, is anything but. The heart of any museum, he says, is the "range," museum jargon for the shelves and cabinets that house the institution's collections. The range is almost never open to the public; in fact the vast majority of any museum's collection is never shown. But the range is the first thing visiting scientists want to inspect. It is the very definition of a museum's worth.

The Graves doesn't have a proper range, he says. Instead they have a back room where things are stacked nearly to the ceiling in cardboard boxes. "Without having a range room, there is no museum," says Petuch. "I have been telling them from day one. They redesigned the whole museum, and there is not a single range room."

To this day Karl Adler insists that the BCAS is not entitled to have a representative on the museum's governing body, because the group gave up rights to its name when it agreed to the new bylaws. The museum registered "Broward County Archaeological Society" as a fictitious name when the museum changed its own name to honor Graves, he adds, and therefore the museum alone has the right to the name.

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