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Celebration of the past, a look into the future

By Staff | Dec 2, 2015

Executive Director Dorrie Hipschman shared some exciting new endeavors for the museum. MEGHAN McCOY

Many attendees went down memory lane during a special Open House at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on the day it opened 20 years ago. The foreseeable future of the museum was also touched upon.

“For all of us in this room that have searched for that perfect shell, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is really a rare find,” Executive Director Dorrie Hipschman said. “This is a museum dedicated to the appreciation and the study of shells and the mollusks. We hope it inspires all of us to look more closely at the world around us.”

Science Director and Curator Jose Leal began the special celebration by sharing that he had the privilege to direct the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum from 1996 to 2013.

“I got here a couple of months after the grand opening,” he said of the Nov. 18, 1995 opening. “I started working here in January 1996.”

Leal said people make all the difference, especially those who have offered their hearts and minds to the great project of the museum over the last 20 years.

“I want to extend a very special thank you to a very select group of founding volunteers for working here at the time we opened the doors,” he said. “I want to thank Executive Director Dorrie Hipschman from the bottom of my heart for encouraging me to continue the things I really enjoy doing.”

Hipschman also thanked everyone who has been involved with the museum.

“A large group of people have such a vision in this that you all started contributing to this museum long before they ever broke ground and thus became charter members,” she said. “All of those chartered members, you are truly exceptional. You are the kind of people that a nonprofit director dream about. I have a group, a group of 92, who have been contributing to the museum for more than 20 years every single year.”

Once Leal finished his heart felt speech, he introduced a gentleman of British tradition, someone he has admired over the years who attended the special celebration.

“I started acquiring shell books as a teenager. The first two authors I became aware of in the world of shell books were founding director Robert Tucker Abbott and Peter Dance,” Leal said.

Dance first visited Sanibel in 1971 before he began taking regular trips to the island. During his presentation he honored Abbott by sharing how they met and worked together on publishing a book.

Their first encounter was at the Natural History Museum in the early 1960s when Abbott started becoming known for popularizing shells. In 1971, Dance was invited to a six shell shows.

“He and I became virtual rivals in the world of popularizing oncology,” he said. “On one occasion we each published a paperback in the same number of pages, the same size, the same subjects. His was demonstrated through photographs, mine was drawings.”

A few years later when Dance saw Tucker in action at a museum in Delaware, it became obvious that Abbott was a natural director of an institution, such as the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.

“I knew Tucker as a friend. I admired him as a museum man. I admired him as a motivator. I am very pleased to be here to express the importance of the man that loved this building he directed and putting so much effort into it. I would say from my knowledge that Tucker was the prime motivating force for this museum,” Dance said.

Hipschman said although Tucker was the driving force behind the museum, it began as a twinkle in Betty Doan Johnson’s eye. She told the audience that the opening day of the museum was Johnson’s birthday.

Last year the Shell Museum added the word “national” because they are the only museum in the United States devoted to oncology and shells. With the name change, Hipschman said they will continue to celebrate the Bailey Matthews family name as part of the institution because they made it possible.

“Without the land donated by the family we would still be homeless, or we would be on Periwinkle Way somewhere,” she said.

Three new additions for the museum were revealed during the Open House. The Shell Museum received a $300,000 grant for new exhibits to be added to the exhibit hall and the entire first floor. The exhibits should be installed by August. A new 8-foot touch tank will be added allowing the museum to do hourly live tank demonstrations beginning in January.

“We really want people to see the animals that create these wonderful shells. That has been very effective for us,” she said of the demonstrations.

An education director, who will take over the Shell Kids and the school field trip program, is in the process of being hired for the museum. Adult learning trips will also be added, which will include partnerships with other natural history museums and schools across the world.

For the first time, the Shell Museum is hosting Mollusks in Pearl, an international conference about the world wide risks mollusks are facing due primarily to climate change and ocean solidification.

“The forum is actually in honor of Peter Dance,” Hipschman said. “It will bring experts around the world and students we hope from around the country.”

The hope of the conference is to stem further discussions on conservation and what can be done for the oceans and environment and how it can be protected.

For more information, visit mollusksinperil.org.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.