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The New Aquarium Experience at Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

A living mollusk exhibit on the overlooked species and the need for conservation debuts at The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

“This animal is just as important as elephants and giraffe,” explains Leigh Gay, education coordinator at The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, while pointing to the spindle-shaped Florida horse conch shell in her palm. While not as recognizable as those larger keystone species, the animal it comes from is just as mighty, supporting an entire ocean ecosystem.

As Gay prepares a group gathered at the Island Inn resort on Sanibel for one of the museum’s daily morning beach walks to identify shells, she knows she must connect the attendees to the natural world and inspire the environmental stewardship needed to conserve it. She has to help the participants understand not just the shell, but the living mollusk that created the shell.

 The only museum in the United States devoted solely to shells and mollusks, The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum was started by a local shell collector in 1984. It has since grown into a national and international resource for the study and sharing of knowledge about mollusks.

Although mollusks are among the ocean’s most vital species, most people know little about them. There are more mollusks in the ocean than fish and marine mammals combined. They are a food source for thousands of species, including humans. They inspire advances in medicine and design. They play a role in nearly all of the world’s natural environments.

And mollusks are going extinct faster than scientists can name them. As their populations crash, so, too, will the ocean’s food web. In Gay’s words, it’s time to care about such slimy, weird things.

In March, the museum opens “Beyond Shells: The Mysterious World of Mollusks,” a new gallery of 11 aquariums and two 15-foot-long touch-tank experiences ranging in size from 100 to 900 gallons. Each is carefully crafted to transform the love visitors feel for empty shells into an appreciation for the amazing living mollusks that made them.

For the first time at the museum, visitors will discover more than 50 different species of living mollusks and their shells, including diverse species not found near Sanibel and Captiva islands. The experience directs visitors’ attention to the ocean’s smaller, often overlooked species and the urgent need for their conservation.

 To help dispel myths that a shell is a home or a rock, rather than a living mollusk’s body part, at least three of the aquariums feature animals with well-known shells. Included are queen conchs, horse conchs, scallops and junonias—treasured finds on Sanibel and Captiva. A Great Barrier Reef aquarium includes three species of behemoth giant clam, although not as large as they can grow in the ocean, which is more than 500 pounds. To experience live mollusks and fish moving around them, children crawl inside a pop-up aquarium.

At these permanent exhibits, visitors will be enthralled by warm-water and cold-water species such as giant gumboot chitons, Lewis’ moon snails, swimming scallops, red turban snails, black turban snails, lion’s chitons and giant rock scallops, squid, cuttles and octopuses. All are sustainably sourced or aquarium-bred to avoid disturbing declining natural populations.

“Nearly everyone loves shells, yet they cannot begin to explain how shells arrived on the beach. How can people value the amazing living creatures they come from if they aren’t aware that they exist?” asks executive director Dorrie Hipschman. “We are so excited to welcome visitors in for an experience unlike ever before at the museum. People of all ages will be surprised, delighted and inspired by these marvelous marine mollusks.

“Experiencing the wonder of these animals is something visitors will never forget. We’ve found it takes meeting the mollusk to learn important lessons about caring for it. And it’s the first step toward conserving and protecting them,” she notes. 

As an institution focusing solely on mollusks in one of the world’s best shelling destinations, the organization is perfectly positioned to lead such a transformation. Adding live animals to its extensive shell collection was a logical, imperative next step for the museum and its mission.

Aquarium curator Rebecca Mensch and senior aquarist Carly Hulse will lead a team of scientific staff to care for, breed and study the new mollusks. The hiring of five marine biologists this year bolsters the museum’s educational team, ensuring that guests always encounter knowledgeable staff members during their visits. “We’ve brought on even more great people to help advance our work, continue to substantially contribute to what’s known and understood about mollusks, and invest significantly in mollusk and conservation education,” says Hipschman.

Opened in 1995, the museum enters its 25th year with aesthetic upgrades and improvements, too. After closing last spring, it reopened in December with a redesigned entrance of two-story floodproof, impact- and wind-resistant glass walls, a renovated second floor with more program and exhibit space, and a remodeled staircase to welcome visitors into the bright and modern new space. Crews replaced vegetation removed during construction with native trees and shrubs, and regraded and repaved the parking lot.

Revenue generated from museum admission supports its research and education efforts, including its mobile program, Mollusks on the Move. Now in its fourth year, the program takes the ocean’s smallest live animals to children who may not otherwise experience them. In 2019, Mollusks on the Move covered about 5,800 miles to reach more than 9,000 students in classrooms at 40 schools across Lee and Collier counties.

The addition of new aquariums also provides opportunity for more community partnerships. Through a new collaboration, the neighboring Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) provides veterinary services to the museum as needed. CROW’s interns get the rare experience of learning about invertebrates firsthand, something few places in the world can offer. And thanks to its new storm-resistant walls and reinforced floor, during hurricanes CROW can house animals at the museum rather than coordinate complicated and costly off-island moves.

By taking visitors beyond beautiful shells to the living animals that create them, the museum will inspire environmental stewardship for the largest group of animals in our ocean. They may be small, but their impact is huge, and so is their need for protection. Give The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum two hours, Hipschman says, and together you’ll change the world.


The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel


Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Holidays differ)

Admission $23.95 for age 18 and up, $21.95 for seniors,

$14.95 for age 12 to 17, $8.95 for age 5 to 11

Free for under age 5 and for active military

$1 off admission for visitors who bike to museum

Daily beach walks offered; call to reserve