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Volunteers are the backbone of Sanibel’s Shell Museum

By Staff | Dec 10, 2014

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island is a destination for over 50,000 visitors annually. The engine which runs the museum, though, comes from the hard work from volunteers. Three of them who help catalog shells from all over the world, include (L to R) Linda Annesley, Tom Risher and Ann Moeder. Brian Wierima

The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is a destination for over 50,000 visitors a year, as the attraction displays some of the most unique, rare and beautiful sea shells and mollusks in the world.

But once a visitor walks through the Shell Museum’s doors, it’s not just the visual beauty which is offered, but the educational aspect which comes along with it.

For all that the Shell Museum offers, it could not be done with the help of countless volunteers who donate their time in many jobs which are needed to make the facility run.

In essence, the volunteers are the pistons which churn the Shell Museum’s engine.

“We have a variety of volunteers, who do all sorts of work,” said Marketing and Events Manager Katie Ball. “We have people who work with visitors, docents who work with the kids or people who work just events. We have road scholars who work with more the elderly. We try and match people up with their interests and what they are comfortable with.

“We are forever grateful to all the volunteers, because we couldn’t run this place without them, since we are a non-profit organization.”

Shells from all over the world end up at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum and it takes plenty of man power and time to keep them all organized, so scientists who are visiting can find them with ease.

The job of cataloging these shells is located in the upstairs of the museum, where up to a dozen different people help separate, identify, catalog and file these shells in a bevy of file cabinets.

There are over 58,000 lots of shells, or roughly 275,000 individual shells collected or donated to the museum in the last 20 years. It represents thousands of species of the critters and creatures occupying shells. Some date to the 1800s.

But to keep that massive collection in order, volunteers need to catalog and file them properly.

That’s where people like Linda Annesley, Tom Risher and Ann Moeder come in.

“It’s a very nice and cohesive group of people,” said Risher, who is a dedicated cataloger. “It’s for people who like to organize and are meticulous. We are very organized in what we do.”

Even though the museum’s collection is a very important part of its function, sharing these shells and mollusks with the public is the attraction.

Docents are the face of the museum, they are the ones who interact with the visitors, help them with any questions and provide valuable educational resources and answers during a tour.

It’s a challenge for these docents, since the variety of people who visit the museum is off the scale. There are shell scholars who visit all the way to the novice sea shell collector.

“You have to make sure you know the answers or know you don’t know the answer and know where to find those answers,” said museum volunteer docent Mike Reardon. “We can’t pretend to know the answers. We need to know how to phrase our answers and know who you are talking to. It’s important to get a quick feel of your audience and their knowledge of shells.”

Even though the museum does have over 70 volunteers who help out in all sorts of capacities, there isn’t a ceiling for the amount of volunteers needed.

“The schedule is always in flux, with people moving out or moving on the island,” Ball said. “We’re always needing more.”

There are plenty of attractions to volunteer for at the Shell Museum, including the opportunity to be a part of a top destination on the island, the chance to help people grow in knowledge on the marine subject and being able to enjoy the shells and mollusks at no charge.

“I’ve always been interested in the ocean and always drawn to water,” said docent volunteer Thomas Annesley, who’s wife volunteers in cataloging, as well. “I just love seashells and always interested in education. I learn something everyday, always. People ask a question, and if I don’t know what it is, I will get a book and find the answer.

“My goal is to educate the visitors.”

The staff of the museum show their appreciation daily to the volunteers, as well, thus making it a fun, positive and learning atmosphere. It’s a positive environment which trickles down to the guests, making it a very enjoyable experience for all involved.

“We have people who are passionate about the museum and like teaching about the island,” Ball said. “We train anyone who wants to volunteer. It’s just a good vibe here.”

To learn more about volunteer opportunities at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, contact the faculty at (239) 395-2233 or visit their website at www.shellmuseum.org.