See Shells on Sanibel

by Jeri Magg

PERRY MASON, aka Raymond Burr, could quickly uncover ample clues to discover the “who done it” behind the success of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (BMSM). Burr, a shell collector and chairman of the museum’s initial fundraiser in the early 1990s, was immensely important in promoting this venue so that in 1996 someone of the educational caliber and enthusiasm of Dr. Jose Leal would apply for the position of director.

Upon closer scrutiny, Burr’s Perry Mason would have even less trouble detecting the plethora of evidence that pointed to success for Leal in whatever path he chose. Now a renowned conchologist, Leal first became enthralled as a young boy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “I was fascinated by the colors and shapes of shells. When you discover your first one, you’re hooked. You never know what you might find next.”

This early interest morphed into a career. With a B.S. in Marine Biology and an M.S. in Invertebrate Zoology from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Leal went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Marine Biology and Fisheries from the University of Miami. However, job opportunities were rare, and he became a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. “Even though you have a doctorate, the competition in the field is immense, so I went to the Smithsonian,” he continues. Then he learned that the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel was looking for a director.

The idea for BMSM began in 1984 with a $10,000 bequest from a local shell collector, followed by the establishment in 1986 of a Shell Research Museum. Two years later a membership campaign was launched. In 1990, pioneer residents Francis, Sam, and John Bailey deeded to BMSM eight acres of land in the wetlands on San-Cap Road. Their only wish was that the museum honor the memory of their parents, Frank P. Bailey and Anne Meade Matthews. The name was then changed to The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, and actor Raymond Burr was invited to serve as chairman of the fundraising committee.

After the groundbreaking ceremony in 1992, the building was opened to the public three years later. Because Dr. R. Tucker Abbott, the first director had been ill for some time, a replacement was needed. Leal applied and was hired. “I couldn’t believe I was offered such a wonderful position on one of the best shell islands in the world,” Leal muses. Unfortunately, Abbott died only days before the museum opened. The museum has become Jose Leal’s life’s project.

Under Leal’s leadership the BMSM exhibits have showcased amazing shell collections that educate both children and adults. “I want to encourage people to visit. Once here, they find the educational programs and exhibits are not boring and tell their friends about the experience.” The Sea Life Summer Camp 2012 highlights the fun aspect of the museum with children’s programs such as Sea-life Adventure and Live Mollusks on Parade. Even fundraisers like the 3rd Annual Oyster Eating Contest and Under the Sea 2012 entertain and teach.

Leal must be doing something right. This year more than 50,000 visitors enjoyed the exhibits. Earlier this year, the Fergusons, members of the U.S. Air Force, received free entrance as part of the museum's participation in the Blue Star Museums program for military families. Their daughters spent hours in the Great Hall of Shells identifying different specimens on a scavenger hunt, an interactive activity that provides educational information about the shells and mollusks (the animal that makes the shell). Each completed hunt resulted in a prize at the end of the visit.

To promote more visitors, there will be two new exhibits opening this September. One is a refurbishment of the memorial to Raymond Burr, while the other centers on Deep-Sea Mollusks.

Currently, the “Raymond Burr Memorial Display,” which allows visitors to buy personalized bricks for $150, is on the ground-floor lobby. It will be moved to the Great Hall and expanded to include more shells from Mr. Burr’s collection, along with memorabilia donated by his partner, Robert Benevides…such as the hat and cane Burr wore in the Perry Mason series. The memorial garden honors Burr who, prior to his death in 1993, spent many hours on Sanibel as benefactor and fund-raiser for the museum.

Born May 17, 1917, in British Columbia, Burr moved to California at age five. His acting career included radio appearances, 66 films and more than 150 television shows. His leading role as “Perry Mason” became a Saturday evening favorite reaching 30 million viewers. The South Seas islands were magnets for Burr, who in 1965 purchased Naitamba Island in Fiji. There, he and Benevides collected shells as a relaxing hobby.

The new ‘Deep-Sea Mollusks Display’ will exhibit shells living in extreme deep-water environments, such as hot vents (underwater volcanoes) and natural gas seeps. Designed by Chase Studios, the exhibit was sponsored by Dr. James Hartman and his wife Molly, along with proceeds from the 2011 Oyster Eating Contest.

Things continue to be updated and improved under Leal’s direction. Recently the museum received grant money for an additional staff member – a Collections’ Manager, who will work cataloguing acquisitions. This past February, John Suau, who has extensive experience in the museum field in the United States and Europe, was hired as Public Relations and Marketing Manager. The museum staff is also planning a new audio tour project that will enhance the main exhibits through the use of the latest digital technologies. Along with a new logo and updated website, BMSM is planning to expand their visitors’ overall experience.

Leal has received many awards during his 16-year leadership at the museum. The latest is his election as President of Conchologists of America, the largest organization of shell enthusiasts in the world. This award is just another clue for Burr’s alter ego Perry Mason in his quest to uncover the mystery of how a young boy, inspired by shells on the beaches of Rio de Janiero, turned this love into a career.

The answer to the “Who done it” at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is Dr. Jose Leal. His passion for shells has turned the museum into a one-of-a-kind venue where education and fun go hand-in-hand! •

from the September-October 2012 issue

3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road
10am–5pm daily

Dr. Jose Leal