Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Surprising Garvies Point Museum and Why I Mostly Stopped Paying Attention

The Garvies Point Museum, nestled on the Garvies Point Preserve, a 62-acre tract of woods and meadows along the shore line of Glen Cove, New York, surprised me in several ways.

First, this Nassau County entity belies its local government origins by being a significant museum (is this much too cynical of me?), offering visitors a very rich array of geological, paleontological, and archaeological specimens, focused primarily on New York, with particular attention to Long Island.

Second, the unique geology of the preserve gets due attention in the museum displays, and, so, it is a pleasant experience, and an educational bonus, at that, to be able to walk along the shoreline below the museum and see examples of that geology in the “real world.”

Finally, I was amazed, and rather disappointed, by my inability to read and absorb much of the text-dense signage featured in the museum.  I’ll admit that I finally stopped paying attention to most of the signs.  That concerns me because it suggests I may actually be one of those museum visitors against whom I’ve been inclined to rail – the ones with a limited or, even, nonexistent attention span, the ones who feel a museum should entertain, rather than instruct.  Needless to say, in this post, I’ve shifted the blame for my loss of focus onto the museum.

I realized how seriously my inattentiveness had compromised me after I spent some time researching, as best I could, the Scotsman Thomas Garvie (1775-1842) whose name is associated with both museum and preserve.  He emigrated to the United States in 1803, three years after receiving a diploma in surgery and pharmacy from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.  He and his father settled in Musketa Cove, east of New York City.  (“Musketa” means “this place of rushes” in the language of the Matinecocks, the local Native American people.)  Here he practiced medicine (with blood-letting as one of his usual treatments).  Thomas acquired an estate of some 90 acres that ran along the shore of the cove.  Among his varied economic interests was the mining of clay from the high quality deposits on his property; the clay was sold for pottery making.  In 1827, he unsuccessfully negotiated with Cornelius Vanderbilt for a steamboat run from New York City to Musketa Cove where the boats would dock at his wharf.  Though steamboats did begin to travel regularly between the Cove and City, they weren’t under Vanderbilt’s auspices and used a different wharf in the Cove.  This transportation connection would, ultimately, prove critical in turning the area into a summer retreat for the city’s wealthy, but it struggled at first because, so the story goes, potential visitors thought the place’s name was “Mosquito Cove,” a decided turnoff.  So, in 1834, at a town meeting, the name was changed.  The current Garvies Preserve consists largely of land that was part of Garvie’s estate.  The Garvie family cemetery is within the confines of the preserve.

My expectation was that I would find, through this research, that Garvie was the museum and preserve namesake because he was an avid student of natural history, that, perhaps, unusual for his time and place, he understood the geology of why his estate had its clay deposits, or that he was a thoughtful collector of Native American artifacts.  But nothing that like emerged.

Instead, it dawned on me (much later than it should have) that I hadn’t paid close enough attention to the name of the museum and the preserve.  It’s the Point that bears his name (albeit sans an apostrophe in the appropriate place), and, thus, only indirectly the museum and preserve.  So, I was wrong in thinking that the museum or preserve saluted some substantial aspect among Garvie’s intellectual interests.  I suppose an argument could be made that his work with clay deposits could have been sufficient justification (the deposits are Cretaceous in origin and are being squeezed to the surface by weight of the many feet of glacial material deposited much later on top), but that’s no excuse for my failing to pay attention to the actual name.

As for the museum, I enjoyed it and, despite what I write below, would recommend a visit.  I do have to admit I really struggled with it.  Perhaps one of the underlying reasons for my difficulties is that, even with limiting most of its focus to New York and Long Island, the museum seeks to cover a great deal of territory in some detail.  The architects of its geological and paleontological displays had no qualms about exploring complex aspects of Earth’s history such as the geological processes that have reshaped the planet, New York, and Long Island (ranging from plate tectonics to the movement of glaciers during various Ice Ages); the diversity of plant and animal life that have come (and mostly gone) and are captured in fossils mostly found in the State and some on the Island; or, finally, the broad array of gems and minerals created by these geological processes.

The geology and paleontology exhibits in the museum provide a wealth of information which surrounds an impressive array of specimens, including two more instances of fossils being found on Long Island which I was happy to add to my very short list of such occurrences.  A few of these specimens are highlighted below.

Tracks of a carnivorous dinosaur, possibly a Coelophysis, were found in rocks on Long Island; they were most likely carried here by glacier action some 22,000 years ago.  It would seem that Coelophysis was from the very Late Triassic, not the Jurassic as the museum displays would have it.

Impressions of Cretaceous flora have been found in pieces of mudstone, sandstone, and shale where Long Island’s Cretaceous bedrock outcrops in a few places.  The Garvies Point Preserve shoreline is one of those spots.  The kinds of plants captured in those sedimentary rocks suggest that the climate at the time was warm and wet.  Shown below are impressions of magnolia and sassafras leaves.

The workings of glaciers on Long Island appropriately receive a great deal of attention in the museum.  Some erratic rocks moved from what is now Connecticut and further north and found along the preserve shoreline highlight a few display cases.  The modest sized erratic shown below is Ordovician gneiss with fine bands of feldspar and amphibole.  I thought it quite beautiful (no excuse for cutting off a bit in the single picture I took).

Another geological phenomenon that marks the Garvies Point Preserve are concretions that occur in great number along the shoreline here.  Among these are the so-called "Indian Paint Pots" (shown below) and "Rattle Stones."  The first involves pyrite nodules which, when exposed to the air, are transformed into iron oxide and, through wave action, are worn relatively smooth and round.  In Rattle Stones, iron oxides precipitate around lumps of material, primarily Cretaceous clay, which then shrink and solidify inside the concretion – hence, the rattling.

Then there’s "Puddingstone," a conglomerate probably formed initially during the Cretaceous when mud covered an accumulation of quartz pebbles.  The Puddingstone found here is unique and was probably carried onto the preserve shoreline by the glacier of the Wisconsin Age, about 25,000 years ago.  Some nice pieces are displayed in the museum.

Great stuff and just a very few of the treasures on display.  But, sadly, I think there’s too much going on in these jam-packed rooms in the museum and that kept me (and I suspect most visitors) from coming away with much understanding of the important stories told through the museum’s displays.  Yes, it could be that in my dotage my attention span has atrophied, but maybe not.

I have long felt that natural history museums have an obligation to inform even as they might try to increase traffic by pushing entertainment.  It’s a balancing act in which the glitz of the entertainment side often prevails.  If these museums err in striving for the proper balance, I’d rather they err on the side of an information mission.  (I should be careful about what I wish for.)

A museum’s educational mission should be accomplished partly by carefully crafted signage providing accessible, overarching messages.  Less is more in this instance.  Though I want natural history specimens to be put into context, that’s a challenge because the context is often (always?) complex.  Present that context in all of its complicated glory and the visitor is lost; dummy things down too much and, though the visitor might think he or she’s learned something, the science may have been diminished to the point of no return.

Laudably, the Garvies Point Museum has embraced its information mission with a passion, but seems to have gone too far in that direction.  As a result, the visitor is buffeted by wave after wave of text-dense signs.  Sort of like a science fair gone wild.

Consider the following signs and ponder what a casual visitor might learn about the processes generating concretions found at Garvies Point, the Milankovitch cycles and their impact on climate (okay, you might not be able to read the text, but there’s certainly a lot of it), and Cretaceous clay at Garvies Point:

To cope, I resorted to photographing many of the signs in the museum so I could read them carefully later, and I photographed specimens so I might see how they illustrate the stories those signs sought to tell.  I had no choice but to do this, given my inability to read and absorb the text on display while I was walking through the rooms at the museum.

This post gives short shrift to the archaeological side of the museum which is a shame because the museum does nicely with its exhibits on the history of Native American life on Long Island.  Displays and dioramas depict native cultures at various periods.  I assume only a portion of the museum’s collection of projectile points are exhibited; the number and diversity presented to the visitor is striking.

When I walked out of the museum, I reentered a brutally hot and humid summer afternoon.  The sane decision would have been to retreat to the car and begin the drive home.  Instead, risking dehydration and sunstroke, I started along one of the preserve's paths that cross through the woods and meadows.  It led me down to the shoreline which is not only serene and beautiful, it also links back wonderfully to exhibits just left behind in the museum.

Consider the following.

The beach is littered with glacial erratics.

I even came upon some Cretaceous clay bubbling up to the surface of the beach under the pressure of the overlying mess left by glaciers.

I spotted a Puddingstone conglomeration.

And, I also came upon an Indian paint pot concretion with its interior filled with sand.

And, thankfully, none of these specimens was accompanied by a sign.


For background on Thomas Garvie, I relied primarily on material on the Garvies Point Museum and Preserve website, an article titled History of Glen Cove, by Antonia Petrash, et al., which appears on the Glen Cove Public Library website, and an article titled An Early 19th-Century Physician:  Dr. Thomas Garvie, by Peter Luyster Van Santvoord (The Nassau County Historical Society Journal, Volume XXVII, Winter-Spring, 1966).
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