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Shelling Out Support in Sanibel

By Staff | Jan 26, 2012

Richard Johnson of Bailey's General Market and Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum Director Dr. José H. Leal prepare for "Under the Sea," a Hawaiian-themed Luau that will benefit exhibits and education programs of the museum. Winner of the grand raffle will collect a prize in a private Luau for 10 catered by Bailey's.

This weekend’s “Under the Sea” event is a Polynesian-themed festivity that will be staged at Island Inn, one of Sanibel’s most senior of beach-side resorts. For all the music, food and hijinks associated with a Hawaiian-Luau, the event serves as an important fundraiser for the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, a facility whose foundation in community history, education and economic significance, simply cannot be overstated.

While Sanibel has long secured distinction as one of the best shelling destinations in the world, the fact remains that it is also home to a museum that is so much more than a mere repository of materials made-up from the calcified excretions of ocean-going organisms. When considering its very specialized area of focus, the comprehensive nature of collected specimens and exhibitions, and its appeal to international shell lovers as well as researchers, the museum is a marvel within a world where only a few institutions of this kind can be identified – and it is right here, on Sanibel Island.

To put a proper context as to the museum’s significance today, it is appropriate to get some perspective on its past and for that, one need only to speak with Evelyn Spencer. At 97-years young, Evelyn is one of the museum’s longest serving volunteers. She was married to the late Gene Spencer, a Navy-man who survived the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941 when both lived in Hawaii. Some years after the war, the two had planned to relocate state-side, and she says they determined to find an area whose beauty could rival what they had become accustomed to in Hawaii. Originally, the plan was to head for Key West. “Someone suggested, ‘Why don’t you go over to Sanibel,” says Evelyn. “We had read about it, and thought ‘Why not?’ We came over and saw it… it wasn’t overly civilized and had an allure, for us, it was most like the island life we had enjoyed in Hawaii.”

Evelyn and Gene, over the course of their life together, traveled throughout the world. But when in Sanibel, Evelyn was often involved with others who comprised a local shell club. This club would have regular meetings where members would share their finds, gathering occasionally at the home of former shell dealer Edie Mugridge, and hosting small exhibitions and competitions as to most outstanding finds. Those processes often led to talks about how nice it would be to have a proper facility for showcasing area shells, of course, Evelyn says the original vision was something of a small cottage or structure with tin roof – very different from the multi-million dollar facility that exists today.

Aspirations being what they are, resolve evolved, and the determination to create such a museum was furthered by assistance from Evelyn’s neighbors, Charlene and Rolland McMurphy. Charlene bequest $10,000 as seed money for the museum in 1984 and in the following year, her husband, Rolland, assembled a founding committee comprised by members of the shell club. This initiative ultimately resulted in the creation of a not-for-profit foundation known as The Shell Museum and Research Foundation, Inc. Their interests and activities would be boosted by a man who was regarded as one of the world’s leading malacologists and experts in all shell subject matter, Dr. R. Tucker Abbott. Evelyn says Abbott had often served as a judge at some of the shell club’s competitions. She says the establishing of a museum on Sanibel was accomplished in large part by Abbott’s active support, ideas and ingenuity.

Evelyn Spencer, age 97, is one of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum's longest serving volunteers.

Of course, critical support also came from Sanibel Island’s pioneering Bailey family. Brothers Francis, Samuel and John donated the eight acres of land on which the museum now resides and bears the name that pays tribute to their father and mother, Frank P. Bailey and Annie Mead Matthews. A capital campaign flourished with celebrity support from Actor Raymond Burr and the museum opened its doors for its first VIP reception in 1995. Evelyn recalls how Tucker Abbott’s health had declined in this period. She says the opening of the museum had been a driving force for his life, and he lived just long enough to see all those plans come to fruition. He died just before the museum hosted a grand opening to the public.

For her years, Evelyn remains as sharp as a tack. Beyond her ability to account of the people that have played a role in the creation of the museum, she is equally eloquent in speaking of the facets of the shells on display at the museum. She takes great pride in the facility, noting how much it has been “raised above the level of a tourist stop.” She enjoys meeting people from all over the world who venture to the museum, some of which she maintains contact long after they leave the Island.

She also says that she is still learning new things about shells all the time. She isn’t alone. The museum, today, is a valuable educational resource, not only for local students, but researchers throughout the world.

For all their beauty and seemingly docile or delicate properties, one need only spend a little time at the museum to see a different side of shells. A live specimen tank in a room off the main exhibition space helps showcase what some may consider a rather savage component of their nature. These organisms are, in some cases, predators that attack and feed on one another in tortuous pursuits of miniscule, but methodical teeth. The fighting conch, despite its fierce name, is no match for, say, that of the lightening whelk.

While many are merely fascinated by their beauty, the point here is that there is another side of shells, and likewise, there is another side of the shell museum that routine visitors may not be readily aware. The museum’s upper floor holds a library and spaces where all manner of archiving, research and education activities occur. The shelves and cabinets here contain specimen as beautiful as anything displayed to the public. Some may be surprised to learn that the museum actually puts together kits, essentially collections of shells with identifying names, which are distributed to teachers for instruction to students in classrooms, not only in Florida, but throughout the continents of this world. For years, teachers throughout the world, have augmented studies in science utilizing shells that have come from Sanibel Island. This may be an educational process, but in terms of promotional value for Florida, and this community, its a program like none other.

On the bottom floor of the museum, there are classroom where students from Lee and other counties routinely make field trips. Museum Director Dr. Jos H. Leal says the museum makes such field trips part of the science curriculum for every single 4th Grade student in Lee County, and at no expense to the school, this program has been underwritten by the museum and its supporters for years. Dr. Leal says it is important to reach children early on as this helps to not only create a more rounded education, but a more responsible person, in terms of helping them develop both an understanding an appreciation for marine life, the environment and science.

Science remains among the forefront of Dr. Leal’s thoughts. From the museum, he publishes The Nautilus, a quarterly journal devoted to the science of malacology which is disseminated to researchers throughout the world.

He notes how the shells in Sanibel actually figure in several important research initiatives. In one case, for example, Dr. Leal describes a type of clam called a “quahog.” These organisms, in creating the shell that encompasses their rubbery form, will draw-in particles from their particular environment. Fossils of this species, contain remnants that can actually be analyzed, which ultimately provides researchers with data as to ocean salinity, temperatures and indicators relating to geographic or climatic change. Shells of Sanibel are helping geologists and other scientist better understand environmental factors of our ancient world.

Meanwhile, the displays that the public sees on exhibit, help them develop deeper insight into the world of shells. One current display depicts cowries and describes how indian cultures used these shells as a currency. Of course, Dr. Leal reminds that shells, in themselves, represent not only the earliest, but longest serving form of currency for many cultures. Little wonder as to why there exists such references relating to costs using vernacular like “shelling out a few clams.”

But from the tools used by the Calusa Indians who were this community’s earliest settlers, to the oyster and clam industries that helped foster development in more modern times, and their providing of food source for all manner of animal and human of past and present, Sanibel’s shells remain critical components of this community’s history.

And considering that tens of thousands of people visit The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum every year, it’s easy to make the case as to the critical role this institution serves locally too.

As Dr. Leal says, “Many people come to Sanibel for shelling… our goal has been to take the interpretation of the local experience, and go a few steps beyond.”

He notes that the creation of new exhibits and the continuance of educational programs come with certain expense. He hopes those attending this year’s “Under the Sea” fundraiser will assist the museum as it moves beyond.