Leal Spent Past 25 Years Curating, Preserving, Educating at Shell Museum

by SC Reporter Reese Holiday
photos by SC Associate Publisher Chuck Larsen

Over the past 25 years, Dr. José H. Leal has been employed at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel, working with unique shells and studying the mollusks that create them.

But while Leal spent a lot of that time preserving shells, he also spent some of it preserving and maintaining a Rolex watch that he’s had for several years, showing his skills as the perfect man for a museum curator job.

“He’s very careful about everything that he does,” said Scot Congress, the museum’s Board of Trustees president. “It’s just a unique characteristic, and you can see that he’s the right guy for preserving the shelling and the shell aspect of what we do here on Sanibel.”

Leal’s career at the museum started in 1996 where he became its first executive director with just a small staff of about four. Now, the museum’s staff has more than doubled with Leal taking on a role of science director and curator.

But before Leal started maintaining any shells, or watches, his education started at engineering school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, following in the footsteps of his father.

Realizing this wasn’t his passion, however, Leal then went on to get an education in zoology, eventually moving to the United States where he received his PhD in marine biology from the University of Miami.

Sanibel was his next stop, landing at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. With many considering the island to be one of the top destinations in the world for shelling, there was no better spot to be.

Since then, Leal has served as an assistant editor for Sea Frontiers Magazine, a visiting professor at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
But even with all of this experience under his belt, Leal’s passion always goes back to the once pristine beaches of Brazil. A place where his connection with marine life began.

“Back in the 1950s, it was paradise,” Leal said about Rio de Janeiro’s beaches. “You’d have sea stars and all kinds of stuff two blocks from my apartment. I think that made a very, very strong impression and imprinted on me the love for all things ocean.”

Since his work at the museum began, Leal has been able to share his passion with others, specifically focusing on the over 130,700 collection of mollusks that the museum has.

Leal said these mollusks, who are the homes for many different kinds of marine life, are his go to shells. But for him, he said picking a favorite shell is like choosing between beloved children. It’s just too hard.

However, one aspect of his job that he can clearly single out as his favorite is educating those that may not know a lot about shells.

This education was seen earlier this month when Leal informed those attending a Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum H2O Lecture about how increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can threaten the health of mollusks and other marine life.

Congress said while this type of education can be complicated, Leal finds a way to make the information understandable for all who step inside the museum.

“He’s been able to figure out a great way to bring science to the museum in a way that the museumgoer can understand it,” Congress said. “It’s a complicated subject. He’s curated thousands of these pieces, and just has done such a great job of figuring out ways to relay the most important aspects of it to the museumgoers.”

Leal said education also leads to connections, emphasizing a visit he had at a Fort Myers assisted living facility for those with psychological issues. There, he brought patients shells of all types and sizes and said one particular patient grew fond over a giant, one-and-a-half-foot shell.

“When he saw that shell, he hugged it,” Leal said about the patient and new friend. “He was so happy that he was even having that experience. There were some that couldn’t communicate much with me, and vice versa, but that shell established that connection, and I think that’s really cool.”

Over the past 25 years at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, Leal has made countless connections like this with museum goers and anyone else interested in marine life. He has also curated countless of shells with all different sizes, shapes and stories.

But while he enjoys those aspects of his work, Leal said there is nothing like talking with someone about his passion that started as a child in Brazil, seeing it become one of their passions too.

“I think my favorite part is when you can talk to someone about the subject, or show something, either a living mollusk or a shell, and see the sparkle in their eyes,” Leal said. “I think that’s priceless.”

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