by SC Reporter Reanna Haase | photos by SC Assoc. Publisher Chuck Larsen
Sam Ankerson is bringing new and exciting ideas focused on the broader topics of shells and mollusks to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Since a majority of the museum’s visitors have never visited Sanibel or do not visit frequently, Ankerson wants to start informing them on larger natural issues facing the island and the shells and mollusks displayed at the museum.
In January, the museum will open a temporary exhibit introducing visitors to water quality issues impacting shells and mollusks. Ankerson, who became the museum’s executive director in March, and his team have been working alongside organizations such as the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Captains for Clean Water, and Florida Gulf Coast University for this exhibit.
“We have a nice opportunity to work with…the sort of experts in this topic and kind of create an exhibit…that is like a primer on water quality for people who visit this area, love this area, but maybe do not understand the kind of challenges we face,” Ankerson said.
The exhibit will highlight issues such as blooming algae, red tide, and the management of Lake Okeechobee. The museum will introduce another temporary exhibit in December on the wonders of black water photography. Deep divers go several miles offshore at night to capture pictures of the marine life they do not get to see during the day.
“(These divers) want to see the range of marine life that comes up from the depths to feed at night under the cover of darkness,” Ankerson said. “To me it sounds relatively terrifying, but people do this for fun.”
The exhibit is to shed light on a marine recreation pursuit people may not have known of otherwise, Ankerson added.
Museum staff have different areas of expertise and strengths, and is what leads to the new and different amazing programs. Ankerson worked in art museums for about two decades before coming to Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, the only museum in the nation with a core focus on shells and mollusks. Although this is his first time working in a natural history museum, his real strengths lie in planning and executing which allows marine life experts to bring their ides to life.
“We have one of the world’s greatest experts in shells and mollusks, Dr. José Leal, who has been here almost since the founding of the museum,” Ankerson said. “I think it was a fit for the museum to have an executive director who has strengths…in the area of putting programs together, getting them funded, kind of keeping the place running.”
In March 2020, the museum underwent major renovations that added nine aquariums with approximately 50 species of marine life and two large touch tanks. The Beyond Shells Aquariums display animals many people do not even realize are mollusks, such as octopus, squid, cuddle fish and sea horses. The project changed the whole experience for visitors.
“The remodeling is the biggest thing to happen to this museum since it was founded really,” Ankerson said. “The museum was founded in 1995 and up until 2020 the experience of visiting the museum sort of comprised of a really great space we call The Great Hall of Shells.”
The Great Hall of Shells is the largest collection of shell exhibits out of any museum in the nation, with a total of 35 shell exhibits. It was their goal, at the time, to create an exhibit that would fully display how these shells came from living animals.
“Most (people) do not realize coming into it, that shells actually come from living animals,” Ankerson said. “I know I did for a long time. You know, you are (walking) on the beach (and) there are shells. You think of them as like rocks or something, you do not think that’s actually part of what was a living animal.”
The museum offered virtual lectures during the pandemic, but in-person lectures will return in 2022. There will be various precautions in place, such as a mask requirement, but visitors will have a comparable experience to past years.
“I think it is far too early for anyone to decide things are normal, but we are glad to be doing what we do best, which is being open and interacting with people,” Ankerson said.
To keep up to date with the latest information on the museum click here.