Fifty-eight thousand. That's the magic figure for the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.
Museum volunteers in the last week crossed the barrier of recording and cataloging 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.
The museum got serious about tracking its huge collection in the last few years, funding two staffers and attracting another two dozen or so volunteers. The figure represents less than half of the shells donated to the Sanibel museum, which this year has added the word "national" to its name. The figure also includes 3,000 wet specimens stored in grain alcohol for DNA research, and a treasure trove donated from the Redfern collection, shells mostly gathered from the Bahamas. Colin Redfern is a rock star in shelling, a noted guidebook author on shelling. His collection dates to the early 1970s. It is considered a coup in the world of malacology, the term zoologists use for the study of mollusks.
Part of the museum collection
"It's a world-class collection," said Tom Risher, a Bailey-Matthews volunteer, shell cataloger and hobbyist. "Probably the best."
The shell museum sits on eight acres donated by one of Sanibel's founding merchant families. The intent was for an information and reference repository for those interested in studying shells. It has evolved into a popular spot for visitors and residents alike, with exhibits, lectures, films, a gift shop. The museum is also a haven for serious collectors and researchers.
And what better place than the Gulf of Mexico, considered a shelling capital of the world. The museum also got an extra boost with actor Raymond Burr lending the weight of his fame and passion for shelling to the effort in the mid 1990s.
Ultimately, the museum is centered on its collection. Volunteers like Risher and Ann Moeder sit in a private room, meticulously and tediously cataloguing thousands of shells in collection boxes. Much of the collection is available online, giving the world a peek behind the curtain, Risher said.
Shells, he said, "are a snapshot in history," relating that shells of the same genetics are found on both sides of Florida, providing researchers foundations for the study of geographic and human affairs.
And nothing goes to waste. The museum's huge collection, which could top a million shells, is sorted for duplicates and those of lesser value. Hundreds of boxes have been bequeathed over the years. Shells are given as souvenirs to children visiting the museum, to crafters, even to Sanibel/Captiva artists erecting shell art.
"No shell is dumped in a bin," Risher said. "Each will benefit someone."
Pam Rambo, the Sanibel shell collector and author of the popular ILoveShelling blog, said islanders are fortunate to have the museum in their midst.
"Shellers around the world know Sanibel and Captiva and the Bailey-Matthews," Rambo said. "It is a premier museum, and a very cool place."