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Sanibel Shell Museum features exhibit on island people and recovery from Hurricane Ian

Bailey Matthews National Shell Museumis a natural history museum with a unique focus on a group of animals called mollusks, or soft-bodied invertebrates with hard calcium carbonate shells. The museum houses over a half a million shell specimens from around the world.

Like most structures on the barrier island, their building sustained water damage from the storm surge, and wind and water damage from roof intrusions. And like the rest of the island post Hurricane Ian, the museum is rebuilding.

Most of the shell collections were untouched. Unfortunately, 80% of the living specimens in aquariums did not survive. The non-native species that did survive, like some cuttlefish, were sent to regional aquariums. The native shelled animals, like horse conchs, were released into local waters.

The museum re-opened to the public on February 1 after mucking out and making sure the structure was safe for visitors.

The museum opened with a new exhibit, unrelated to mollusks, that went up alongside the second-floor shell displays. Sam Ankerson, executive director of the museum, shared how the exhibit came about.

"This exhibit of the storm and its aftermath, the idea for it came to us when we realized there was going to be a period of time, maybe many months, between when the museum was cleaned out and when reconstruction would begin on the damage that we had. And we wanted to continue being a resource for people and perhaps a place for respite following the storm," said Ankerson.

The photographs are provided by vertebrates who live on the island.

"The storm's on everyone's mind and everyone had different experiences of it, and they're all talking about it," he said. "We just thought it would be a good idea to encourage people to submit any of their photographs that had meaning for them from from any of the hurricane impacted communities on any subject, good, hopeful, anything."

The images on the wall range from the devastation of a destroyed home to a celebration of beloved white pelicans returning to the island. One image has living room furniture set up amidst debris and 2-by-4 walls that are stripped bare. It is cheekily labeled “an -open air concept.”

Ankerson said for him the photos show a sense of community that can only come through something like a disaster:

"There are some very compelling pictures of people's journey or journeys back to the island, particularly in the early going. For example, maybe it's new friends they made who helped them get over on a boat. Or it's people they met who are helping them muck out their home. Or there was just a real spirit of camaraderie around getting people to the island and helping them to help themselves. And it's those kinds of pictures that for me are really powerful."

The collection of photos of destruction on the island also can be sobering.

To be honest, people are quite moved by it. There was a period of time actually we were keeping boxes of Kleenex up here."

Ankerson anticipates that the exhibit will continue to expand, "Right now we have about 150 photographs, I would say from maybe about 100 photographers. And it's growing all the time. And we welcome continued submissions."

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum museum is open daily from 11am to 3pm. The photograph exhibit can also be seen on the museum website, shellmuseum.org.

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