Charles Zidar brought a dinosaur egg to his dentist’s office.
It wasn’t long after he purchased the egg for $900 at the Dinosaur Store in Cocoa Beach that he carried it into Expressions Cosmetic and Family Dentistry, where he’d convinced the staff to let him use their 3D panoramic X-ray machine to see if perhaps a baby dinosaur had been fossilized inside for several million years.
“It was an interesting afternoon," said Chelsea Anderson, a dental assistant there.
Nothing showed up at first, but Zidar is a determined do-it-yourself type, the kind of guy who just knows he can do all sorts of things he’s never done, if you’ll just let him try.
He convinced the dental staff to let him take over the controls. He moved the egg around on a makeshift stand, since a person normally has their head inside the machine as it scans their teeth and jaw.
And when a new image printed out, he was certain he saw a head over here, an eye over there.
Several experts in the field of paleontology and paleobiology reviewed the image. The responses ranged from “this is extremely suspect” to “hard to tell” to “maybe,” but Zidar, who admitted the next step is to work with scientific experts to see if he really has something, was hardly discouraged.
“This egg could be our museum’s Winter!” he said. "I’ve had someone tell me that.”
Winter, as in the famous dolphin who played herself in the film Dolphin Tale and has since helped the Clearwater Marine Aquarium become a big-time tourist attraction.
The “our museum” Zidar was referring to is the Museum of Archaeology, Paleontology and Science (MAPS). As the founder and CEO, he’s trying to get it off the ground in Tampa Bay, though right now, the registered nonprofit exists only on paper, and in rows of boxes stacked to the ceiling inside a warehouse in Citrus County, the exact location of which he won’t reveal.
His description of the place, where archival boxes wait to be opened and painstakingly cataloged so he can know the full breadth of the collection, conjures an image of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the Ark of the Covenant is wheeled through a massive storage facility of endless wooden crates holding who-knows-what treasures.
Told this, he smiled. Turns out that Zidar, who is 52 and presents as a bit rakish with the sleeves of his untucked shirt rolled up and his collar open to the third button, keeps a movie-quality Indiana Jones costume on a mannequin in a storage room at his Tarpon Springs home.
He wore it in his engagement photos with his now-wife Nikole, who teaches anatomy and physiology at Pasco-Hernando State College (the actual proposal took place underwater, while scuba diving). He keeps the hat, leather jacket and whip near his replica sarcophagi from the tomb of King Tut. In his front yard he’s growing a ceiba tree because it was sacred to the Mayans.
“People actually call me Indy,” Zidar said.
But a few months ago, Zidar’s museum took a big step from fantasy toward reality. MAPS received a donation from Broward College that amounted to the school’s entire cultural and archaeological collection, around 6,000 individual pieces, many of them centuries old.
The items, from Asia, Egypt, Central and South America, the U.S., Africa and Europe include pre-Columbian gold figurines and ear spools, specialized cannon shot and manacles recovered from Caribbean shipwrecks during the era of piracy, burial chamber items, wooden carvings from before the discovery of the New World and equipment that may have been used for ancient tattooing.
The donation also included hundreds of geological and natural history items, including ammonites and geodes and other cut and polished mineral pieces, previously used in an exhibit that taught people about the minerals all around them.
Meanwhile, Zidar has amassed his own private collection of fossils, such as the dinosaur egg, which he said he and Nikole are donating to the museum he founded. He displayed a long bone he said came from a duck-billed dinosaur and some coprolites, or “dinosaur poop,” in his living room where a blowgun and darts from South America sat in a corner.
“My wife brought that back from Brazil,” Zidar said. “My son doesn’t realize how far we’ve gone around the world. He’d play with this stuff.”
Zidar’s day job is as a landscape architect and manager for a creative lighting company that stages animatronic dinosaur shows and Chinese lantern festivals. How’d he wind up the recipient of a large museum collection?
Broward College did not have a museum, but displayed exhibits in buildings across its campus since receiving the collection from Graves Museum of Archaeology and Natural History in Dania Beach in 2006. The Graves, where countless South Florida school children took field trips in the 90s and early 2000s, closed in 2004 amid financial struggles and infighting between the board and the museum’s founders. Two years later, a bankruptcy judge ordered the artifacts go to Broward College.
When the college started looking for somewhere to offload the collection a decade later, Zidar was in the mix because of a tie back to the Graves Museum, where he rose to the position of interim director amid the tumult.
Though he is technically an amateur in the fields of archaeology and paleontology, his interest in the sciences go back decades to when he was an undergrad studying landscape architecture at Ohio State.
He overheard a grad student telling a professor he couldn’t return to a dig site in Greece because he was graduating, so he burst into the professor’s office.
“I’ll do it! I’ll go!”
The professor scoffed, saying he was unqualified. So, Zidar said, he went to the head of the excavation. He offered to do drawings of the ruins using his landscape design skills.
He would go on to use the same approach after school. He began working with the Graves Museum by offering to do landscaping and irrigation on the museum grounds for free. Later they hired him, and he rose through the ranks, eventually to interim director.
His time in that top job was documented in a 2000 Broward-Palm Beach New Times article that described Zidar, then 33, as “an affable man” who lacked the rumpled academic vibe of a museum director and looked “a little lost,” but had a skill for getting things done on a tight budget.
Having the Graves Museum on his resume allowed him to find work with institutions such as the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and later the Missouri Botanical Gardens, where he helped create an exhibit that recreated Mayan headdresses seen only in paintings on ancient pottery. The headdresses now adorn mannequins at Zidar’s home, standing like soldiers near the Indiana Jones costume.
He eventually earned a Master’s Degree in liberal studies, writing a thesis titled Sacred Giants: Ethnobotany of the Bombacaceae by the Southern Lowland Maya. He has assisted on fossil digs in the U.S., and said his work has allowed him to visit dozens of countries.
Broward College’s donation to MAPS earlier this year reunited him with a collection he’d been responsible for more than a decade ago, as well as with the museum and archaeological community.
“He’s just incredibly passionate about this stuff, and he gets other people excited about it and draws people to him,” Nikole Zidar said. “This is something he’s been dreaming about as long as I’ve known him.”
When Broward College decided it was time to pass the collection along to another institution, it sent letters trying to drum up interest from “every museum in Florida” said Kirsty Forgie, a former Broward College employee who served as a curator there and previously worked with Zidar at the Graves.
The college’s fossils, which included dinosaur bones, went to its own science department. A few Asian artifacts went to the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach. Zidar’s MAPS got everything else — there were no other interested parties.
That was because of the collection’s unusual variety more than anything else, Forgie said, which made it a difficult fit for specialized institutions. She praised the collection as vast and interesting. Some of the items boxed up and sent to MAPS were fully formed exhibits just waiting to be put back together.
If the artifacts are so interesting, why did the college want to unload them at all? A spokesperson for Broward College did not answer that, but instead directed questions back to Forgie, who did not want to discuss it.
“These things require a lot of care and a huge cost to maintain. It can really be a burden," Zidar said. “I’m just the temporary caretaker for now until we can get the next step going.”
When the Graves Museum went through bankruptcy, the collection was listed as having no monetary value. Forgie said that was only to prevent precious historical items from being auctioned off to private collectors. Earlier estimates put the collection at around $2 million, she said, but noted it’s difficult to assign value to history.
“The true value is in the stories you can tell, and there are a lot of stories you can tell with this collection," Forgie said. “Stories about pirates, stories about enslaved people. People love underwater archaeology. There’s an old diving mask in there, with the big round glass front and the cage over it. It really depends how you define value.”
Currently though, the cache of possibly burdensome treasure sits in storage waiting to be seen by the public again. Zidar is trying to figure out how to make that happen. He has floated St. Petersburg, Clearwater or somewhere in Citrus County as possible locations for a physical museum.
Zidar showed off a wooden model of a museum made of storage containers he designed, saying he’d only need one acre and $1 million to make it a reality. The container garden, as he calls it, would feature an outdoor space where plants genetically connected to ancient plant fossils in the collection would grow. He also has thoughts about a traveling, pop-up museum that could visit schools.
“If anyone wants their name on a museum, we’re open for investors right now,” Zidar said. “This area has nothing like this. I just want kids to see this stuff, and get excited like I am.”
He’s never created a new museum before, but he’s up for anything.