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Bailey-Matthews celebrates birthday with free admission day

By Staff | Nov 12, 2014

Hardly seems true. The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum will “shell-a-brate” its 19th birthday on Nov. 15. Free admission on Saturday (Nov. 15) will include activities, new exhibits (touchtank), films, crafts, giveaways, other fun stuff at one of the world’s premier museums targeted to the science, history and enjoyment of mollusks and shells.

The museum at 3075 San-Cap Road is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Details, collection and exhibit information are available at shellmuseum.org.

“We’re very excited about moving into our 20th year,” said Dorrie Hipschman, the museum’s executive director.

Sanibel and Captiva have long been considered the world’s nerve center in shelling. The hobby accounts for added millions in southwest Florida tourism revenue, an annual shell festival attracts many thousands of serious crafters and collectors to Sanibel in March.

So it’s a natural transition for the mecca to produce a shrine.

The museum’s initial funding was provided by Charlene McMurphy, whose will left $10,000 to erect a shell a tribute. The Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club was instrumental in furthering the project, according to the book “Idea to Realty,” a history of the museum written in 1996 by William Hallstead. The book lays out the momentum in funding the museum, securing land, designs, the millions of details that go into an enterprise of its scope and size.

Ultimately a famous television star tipped the scales. Raymond Burr was noted for his passion for collecting shells. Friendships brought the “Perry Mason” actor into the picture, where he served as the honorary chair of a committee to fund and build the museum. He shot promotional commercials and public-service announcements to publicize the museum, spent time with local news crews, solicited donations, hosted a gala fundraiser, almost single-handedly drove the effort to raise nearly $1 million to fund the project, according the Hallstead. The museum last year counted some 50,000 visitors.

Others, of course, played huge roles in the museum’s ultimate development, including the merchant Bailey family, which donated an eight-acre parcel on which the museum now sits. That land was valued at more than $200,000, a big sum in a campaign to build a nonprofit museum from scratch. Hallstead’s book also lists seven pages of donors contributing time and funds towards the museum’s development; seven pages in small print, single spaced and three columns per page.

The Bailey-Matthews in the last two decades is recognized internationally for its collections, exhibits and related science to the lowly mollusk, a creature of vast interest to millions around the globe. The museum, in fact, has an extensive shell collection regarded as among the best. Many of the shells are either bequeathed, delivered by the thousands in boxes, or otherwise gifted to the museum’s catalogue staff. The museum in July recorded 58,000 lots of shells, roughly 275,000 individuals shells, counted shell by shell, logged by volunteers in a pristine upperfloor office. That number has since been eclipsed by thousands of shells. The museum also accepted a donation of a noted author whose shell collection is historic in size and uniqueness. Colin Redfern has some 1,100 different shell species from an Abaco, Bahamas, collection.

Free admission, sponsored by dozens of island merchants and donors, is a “way for us to say thank you,” Hipschman said of the Nov. 15 celebration.