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Museum History

1984–1989: The Beginning

Before there was a Shell Museum, there were the shell collectors. They were passionate about this special place—Sanibel Island, one of the best shell-collecting spots in the world. They dreamed of establishing a museum dedicated entirely to shells and the environmental importance of mollusks, the animals that create them.


In 1984, with a $10,000 bequest from local shell collector Charlene McMurphy, their dreams began to become a reality. The following year, Charlene’s husband, shell craftsman Rolland McMurphy, organized a Founding Committee, selected from members of the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club and chaired by Betts Johnson. In the fall of 1986, this group evolved into The Shell Museum and Research Foundation, Inc., and filed for incorporation as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.


In May 1987, the board approached world-renowned malacologist Dr. R. Tucker Abbott for guidance on establishing a museum, and he quickly became an active supporter. To begin raising funds for construction, the Museum launched its first membership campaign in early 1988. By that summer, the City of Sanibel had officially recognized the Museum as an educational institution. In 1989, Dr. Abbott became a formal consultant to the board, and at his recommendation, the organization was renamed The Shell Museum and Educational Foundation, Inc. But it was still without a place to build an actual museum facility!

Founders of the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island Florida

1989–1996: Construction & Opening

In 1989, three local brothers, Francis, Samuel, and John Bailey, generously deeded eight acres of wetland on Sanibel Captiva Road to the Museum. They used the gift to memorialize their parents, Frank P. Bailey and Annie Mead Matthews, whose names the Museum now bears. In January 1990, after the Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had approved the site for construction, the Museum opened a capital campaign office, and Dr. Abbott invited actor Raymond Burr to serve as campaign chairman. Dr. Abbott was appointed Founding Director in 1991, conferring substantial scientific prominence on the Museum.


The City of Sanibel issued a building permit in February 1994, and at last, on May 6, 1994, construction on the country’s first museum dedicated solely to mollusks began. Sunbank/Southwest Florida Bank (now Suntrust) made a $750,000 loan available—contingent upon the Museum receiving a construction grant from the Florida Cultural Facilities Program. When a construction grant of $241,000 was awarded in August 1994, the Founding Committee knew their Museum was going to come to fruition.


The Museum opened to the public in June 1995. Sadly, Founding Director Dr. R. Tucker Abbott passed away that fall. The Board of Directors, now chaired by Dr. Harold Tovell, created a search committee, headed by Bernard Waterman, to begin interviewing applicants for the position of science director. In February 1996, they hired marine biologist Dr. José H. Leal to fill the position.

Historical photo from Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

1996–2010: Scientific Institution

Dr. Leal immediately started building an outreach program centered on mollusks and the environment, which was presented at conservancy organizations, elementary, middle and high schools, homeschooling groups, churches, shell clubs, community groups, retirement homes, and other public organizations. The Museum also created a monthly Evening Lecture Series, presented by leading specialists in malacology and natural history. (This series is now presented in collaboration with the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club.) In 1997, the Museum began partnering with Lee County School District to help pay for transportation costs and admission of schoolchildren.


Later in 1997, the Museum launched the R. Tucker Abbott Visiting Curatorship award, which attracts leading scientists who wish to help curate and organize the Museum's mollusk collection. It also opened the Museum’s facilities to visiting researchers, interns, and students, fostering national and international research collaboration. The Museum further solidified its scientific standing in 1997, when it became the publisher (with Dr. Leal as the Editor) of The Nautilus, the oldest English-language malacological journal. In its long-range plan, adopted in November 1998, the Museum stated: "Education has been and will remain the major goal of the Museum… A major portion of research at the Museum is a result of or should result in collection-related activities. Visits by scientists and students are evidence of the comprehensive scope and importance of the collection."


By July 1999, with the help of a donation from the estate of Mrs. Bernice Plummer, the Museum had paid back the $750,000 loan. The following May, it established a Cultural Endowment Fund with a principal of $360,000. And in August 2000, it was designated a Cultural Sponsoring Organization by Florida's Division of Cultural Affairs.

The Museum received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)/American Alliance of Museums (AAM) in 2002. This allowed it to begin the museum accreditation process, starting with a survey by AAM’s Museum Assessment Program in 2003. The Museum subsequently received a Conservation Assessment Program grant from IMLS in 2004, which allowed a conservator to assess the Museum's Collection and Research Department. It achieved an accreditation from AAM in 2010.


The Museum established strong ties with many public and private sector organizations during this period, including the UN Food and Agricultural Organization; the Smithsonian Institution; Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil; the Florida Museum of Natural History; the Conchologists of America; Southwest Florida Library Network; Sanibel Public Library; The Sanibel School; the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce; the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation; and shell clubs throughout Florida.

During this period, the Museum’s collection great tremendously, largely thanks to donations of collections from individuals. Today, the Collection numbers over 500,000 specimens in over 130,000 lots. (A lot is a group of specimens – such as shells – of the same species that is collected at the same time in the same place.) While the Collection’s strength is mollusks of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean regions, it includes examples from all corners of the earth and has grown into a major resource both public education, enjoyment, and scientific research. 

Under Dr. Leal’s leadership, and with the support of grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Collection is today fully catalogued with key data for all specimens publicly available online at Photographic records of many specimens in the Collection are also available through the database.

Old Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum sign

2010–Present: Expansion

In July 2013, Dorrie Hipschman was named Executive Director of the Museum, with Dr. Leal assuming the role of Science Director and Curator. With an extensive background in major gift fundraising, grant writing, and strategic planning, Hipschman oversaw a period of substantial growth in staff and programming at the Museum.


In 2014, the Museum added “National” to its name, as it continued to be the only museum in the United States devoted solely to shells and mollusks. The Museum celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015 with a Free Admission Day. The following year, it hosted the Mollusks in Peril Forum, a 2.5-day event that brought together scientists, students, and concerned citizens to examine large-scale threats to mollusk populations.

In 2019, work began on the most significant expansion of the Museum and its public exhibit space since the institution’s 1995 opening. Without significantly changing the physical footprint of the building, a renovation of the ground floor and part of the second floor resulted in a welcoming new Museum entrance and admissions lobby, a flexible space for special exhibitions and events, and – most dramatically – the Beyond Shells Living Gallery of 11 aquariums and touch pools. Now, in addition to the large and exceptional exhibits of shells for which the Museum is known, the experience of visiting the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum features living mollusks, marine animals and ecosystems from all over the world.

The renewed museum and its aquariums opened March 1, 2020, closed temporarily as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and reopened in May, 2020. The Museum celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020. In 2021, Sam Ankerson joined as the next Executive Director with a focus on broadening programs, building audiences, and growing partnerships regionally and nationally to help grow and further the impact of this unique museum for its next 25 years.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony for Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum's Living Gallery, which opened on March 1st, 2020
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