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Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island
There’s no other museum in the entire United States quite like the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum. It’s the only museum stateside that is entirely devoted to shells and the mollusks that create them; that’s what makes it so unique. It’s located on Sanibel Island, a small island off the Southwest coast of Florida (14 miles west of Ft. Myers) in the Gulf of Mexico.
Sanibel Island’s claim to fame is its beaches. USAToday ranks the Seashells of Sanibel as the 7th of Florida’s Best Attractions overall (right on the heels of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, so you know Sanibel is pretty spectacular!). It consistently ranks at the top of Travel & Leisure’s 10 Best U.S. Shelling Beaches. And, internationally, it’s known as one of the best shelling beaches anywhere. So what better place to have a shell museum than right in the middle of the shelling capital of the world!
The Museum was conceived in 1984 and opened its doors to the public in 1995 — a dream-come-true for many Sanibel shell enthusiasts. Since its inception it has operated as a reference center for students and scientists, both nationally and abroad. During my last visit some researchers from out of the country were working upstairs (not accessible to patrons) to assist with curating and organizing part of the Museum’s vast mollusk collection. It’s been an ongoing effort for many years.
Bailey Matthews Shell Museum has become the premier destination for anyone interested in terrestrial, marine, or land mollusks of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. Lecture Series are commonplace and given by leading specialists in malacology (the branch of zoology that deals with mollusks) and natural history. Shell aficionados young and old have benefited from the Museum’s findings — shell clubs, community groups, public schools, home-schooled children, churches, and retirement homes. In fact, an official collaboration with Lee County schools was started in 1997.
The Bailey Matthews Shell Museum was named in honor of the family who donated the 8 acres of land where it was erected, and operates as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Marine biologist José H. Leal, Ph.D., serves as Curator and Scientific Director of Education.
Sanibel Island is World Renowned for its Shelling Beaches
Many of the shells that end up in Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum are found on Sanibel Island, Captiva Island right next door, or neighboring barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico. If you look closely at the photo below, you’ll notice that the sand on this Sanibel Island beach is covered with seashells! I have never seen such a high concentration of shells as what I experienced on the beaches of Sanibel. As a Florida resident I’m accustomed to walking barefoot on our beautiful sandy shores. But… not here! It’s a dangerous thing because of the multitude of shells. I overheard a lady in a Sanibel Island gift shop tell her friend that she cut her foot very badly on some shells, even with sandals on. For her, it required an emergency trip to the hospital; not the way to spend a vacation in paradise!
TIP: Always wear protective beach shoes while on Sanibel Island’s shell-strewn beaches. Although the pastel-colored shells are stunning to look at and exciting to collect, they’re likely to cause injury if proper footwear is not worn.
Southwest Florida Shell Guide: A Work in Progress!
I had a blast searching for and collecting shells on Sanibel Island. The locals are awesome; always eager to help a bone fide novice like me learn the secrets to successful shelling.
- Rule #1: Learn the “Sanibel Stoop!” Scouring the beach with a bent-over posture will yield better results.
- Rule #2: Buy a shovel! The plastic kiddie-kind will do just fine. Prized shells are like most other valuable treasures — found just below the earth’s surface with a little digging.
There were so many unusual ones, very different from what I find on beaches elsewhere in Florida. Since I’m not a serious shell collector, and I’m far from being an expert at seashell identification, I needed a lot of help distinguishing one from another. The Bailey Matthews Shell Museum was the perfect place to assist. José H. Leal created the Southwest Florida Shell Guide. It depicts hundreds of shells, but has an emphasis on those collected on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. It currently has 349 species listed but is continually being expanded and updated. Various information is given for each type, along with a photo for easier identification. But here’s the best news of all… you don’t have to travel to Sanibel Island or the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum to gain access to this information. It’s available to anyone via the Museum’s website. Simply click this link to open the Southwest Florida Shell Guide.
Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum: Hours and Daily Programs
Unlike many Sanibel Island businesses, the Museum doesn’t keep seasonal hours. That means no matter what day, week, or month you visit it will be open. (Our last trip to the Island was in September, and we were disappointed to find out many of the local businesses close during that month!) The Museum is closed only one day each year; Thanksgiving. Otherwise, you can visit daily from 10 – 5 (with abbreviated hours on major holidays). Adult admission is $15, with reduced prices for children and youth. Children under 5 and active military are FREE. Parking is included, and daily programs are FREE with paid admission.
How long should you plan on being at the Museum? Well, I’ve been to Bailey Matthews Shell Museum twice, both times spending several hours looking at awesome displays, watching informational videos, and participating in the daily programs. But even if you bypass the extra programs, I’d recommend a minimum of 1 1/2 hours. The events are ever-changing, so it’s best to check the daily schedule on the arrival board in the main lobby.
We attended a Live Tank Talk that was presented by a marine biologist. What a great way to gain insights into the fascinating world of mollusks! It was both fun and informative. Our speaker allowed ample time to answer all questions and we got to handle some of the subject matter. There’s no better way to learn than “hands-on!” There was also an hour-long Arts & Crafts session that my “crafty” friends took advantage of. Hubby and I were sorry we didn’t join them after seeing their shell masterpieces. My friend Ron made a cat, and his wife, Donna, made the most adorable seashell elephant. Her miniature version of this otherwise large pachyderm was amazingly adorable. I affectionately call him “EL, the seashell elephant!”
Permanent and Temporary Exhibits at the Shell Museum
The Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island offers more than 30 permanent exhibits, along with some that are on display for a limited amount of time. I remember prior to my first visit having this thought, “How can you build an entire museum out of a few sea shells?” Oh my goodness, I was so narrow-minded! I had the opportunity to see and learn about shells that I never even knew existed. Gorgeous shells, scary-looking shells, humongous shells, itty-bitty shells… and every kind in between. Not to mention that Bailey-Matthews houses some of the largest record-holding shells in the world. In fact, they have the largest known Goliath conch, Atlantic trumpet triton, horse conch, and lightning whelk. These things were massive! Take a look at some of my favorites…
The Role of Shells in History
Shells are not just beautiful and interesting to look at, but for centuries they’ve played an important role in culture, art, design, and medicine. For example… do you know what the oldest currency in the world is? Prior to visiting the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum, I didn’t know either. It’s shells! Apparently even before coins were made of silver and gold and precious gemstones, the ancient monetary system was shells. In one of the exhibits at the Museum you’ll learn why shells were used as money.
“The money cowrie (Erosaria moneta) is the most widely circulated and longest enduring currency in history!”
~ The Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum Quote
On a more romantic note, shells were also used as Valentines! Back in the early 19th century, shells were used as a popular art form developed by women in the Caribbean Islands. Oftentimes, sailors would create extravagant shell artwork and bring them home to their loved ones as the ultimate Valentine.
Additionally, shells were used to make some very practical things like buttons and bows. And fashion diva’s “back in the day” didn’t have Gucci, Coach, or any other designer-named purse so guess what they used? Yep, shells! And check out the intricacy (photo below) of the “flower” arrangement. It’s made entirely of shells, all with their natural color — every petal delicately and strategically placed. Among other things, there are 7 stems of lilac flowers made from 3,500 purple coquinas, all hand-collected on Sanibel Island. It took the artist and his wife 200 hours to complete this stunning piece.
Calusa: Florida’s Original Shell People
The exhibit depicting the Calusa Indians was fascinating. The Museum uses life-size models that look amazingly real. The Calusa were the original inhabitants of Southwest Florida (long before the first Spanish explorers) and made many of life’s necessities from shells; hence, the nickname “Florida’s original shell people.” Through the artifacts on display we know they used shells for things like tools, weapons, utensils, jewelry, and shell spears were made for fishing and hunting. More information on this “people group” can be found on Wikipedia’s Calusa Indian page.
Exotic Shells from Around the World
Upon entering the Museum the focal point of the Great Hall is a display featuring exotic shells from around the world. You can’t miss it! It includes shell species from the Japanese Province, Indo-West Pacific and other distant locales typically only accessible with a passport. It’s an inexpensive way to do some island hopping, and, if you get tired the room has a few comfy benches.
The Prized Junonia
I’ve saved the best for last! The Scaphella junonia is the grand prize for shell collectors on Sanibel and its surrounding islands. It truly is the pride of Sanibel Island. The treasured junonia is such a special find because it rarely washes ashore. It’s a deep-water marine mollusk that lives off the coast, in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s how the official Chamber of Commerce website for Sanibel and Captiva Islands describes it:
“The islands’ most coveted seashell, it belongs to the volute family. Its milky chamber is covered with brown spots on the outside, and the animal that occupies the shell is likewise marked. Shellers who find a junonia on Sanibel or Captiva get their pictures in the local newspaper!”
Yes… a junonia find is so rare that you practically become a celebrity by the locals if you scoop one up — right down to getting photographed for the local newspaper! HINT: the best time to find one is right after a major storm, when all kinds of marine life comes ashore.
The Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum is a great experience for the whole family. They have incredibly useful information for shellers of all types, from amateur to professional. In addition to viewing shells you won’t see anywhere else, their resources are second to none. And, even if you’re not an avid sheller, you’ll leave with a new appreciation for shells and the little creatures that inhabit them. It’s no wonder people come from all over the world to visit Bailey-Matthews! I highly recommend this experience.
DID YOU KNOW…
Yearly Memberships for Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum are available for as little as $50 for 2 people?
Purchase online before you go!
NAME: Beach Walk — LOCATION: Island Inn Beach
TIME: 9:00 AM Daily — DURATION: 60 Minutes — COST: $10 (Adult)
MEETING ADDRESS: 3111 West Gulf Drive, Sanibel — Purchase tickets online
Led by a Marine Biologist, you’ll learn about the shells, mollusks, and other marine life that has washed ashore!