By Claire Ferguson
The joy of discovering a beautiful shell in the sand is a universal experience. While some of us may have a select few on display, others might have a collection big enough to start their own museums.
For those of us who want to explore the world of shells further, there are museums and exhibits around the world that allow us to view a much vaster range of seashells all in one place. These organizations are not only incredibly valuable to the scientists who study and document the species and ecosystems, but also for anyone wanting to learn a bit more about the vast array of local and worldwide shells that have captured human interest for millennia. Here are a few places to add to your travel bucket list that will enhance your seashell knowledge and appreciation, and maybe even give you ideas for displaying your own collection.
Considered the last great Prussian baroque palace, The New Palace is located in Potsdam, Germany. Completed in 1769, the building was commissioned under Frederik the Great to demonstrate Prussian power and glory. The palace embraces Rococo and Baroque excess, with magnificent ballrooms, great galleries, and lavishly furnished apartments. The majestic Grotto Hall showcases paintings, chandeliers, statues, fountains, and more, with marble walls encrusted with over 24,000 minerals, shells, precious stones, and fossils. While grottoes were traditionally outdoor garden features, Frederick II used shell-covered rock work and traditional marine motifs directly in the interior.
Next, we head to the southeast coast of England in the county of Kent, where underneath the seaside town of Margate lies a mysterious, 70-foot long, subterranean passageway. Upon descending the chalk stairs through a serpentine tunnel, visitors find themselves inside of an astonishing Shell Grotto, lined with over 2,000 square feet of mosaics covered by an estimated 4.6 million seashells. Although there is still much debate over why or when the structure was built, local historians all agree that it was discovered after James Newlove purchased Belle Vue Cottage. While excavating around the cottage in 1835, workmen found a large stone in the ground and discovered the passageway to the grotto. James’ children swear they discovered the Grotto first, but in any case the grotto is a marvel.
Some believe it served as an ancient temple, or a secret meeting place, or perhaps just as an architectural feature in a rich home. Follies and shell structures were not uncommon in England in the 17th and 18th centuries and were a symbol of culture and wealth. The Margate Grotto, however, lies under a typical English neighborhood that was formerly farmland and never part of a large estate. A project as complex and intricate as the Shell Grotto probably wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. What is indisputable, however, is the breathtaking beauty of swirling patterns and symbols created by locally found humble cockles, whelks, mussels, oysters, limpets, razor shells, as well as a few exotic queen conches from the Caribbean.
The Museum has information about the Grotto and ongoing conservation work plus a collection of shell art from around the world on display. There is also a color panel made to show the bright colors of the original work (the only thing you’re allowed to touch!)
The Shell Museum in Jeffrey’s Bay is located in the Eastern Cape of South Africa is a must-see beachfront attraction for families and shell fanatics alike. It originally opened in 1988 to showcase the collection of local resident Charlotte Kritzinger. Charlotte spent many years collecting unique shells and marine life skeletons. The collection has expanded over time through donations and exchanges, including a recent addition of a micro-shell display. Viewers can discover the legendary cowrie, the rare paper nautilus, tiny baby jam tarts, and a new species of cone snail. This museum currently houses more than 600 shells from species all over the world, making it one of the largest shell collections in South Africa.
The India Seashell Museum on the coast of Mahabalipuram houses the biggest seashell collection in all of Asia. The architecture of the building stands out on its own, with various marine life sculptures decorating the acre of land including an octopus, seahorse, giant clamshell, and more for plenty of great photo opportunities. Opened in 2013 by avid collector K. Raja Mohamed, the collection contains over 40,000 shells from across the globe including the “Breath Maria” shell, one of only a few ever found. This museum also has a unique pearl gallery, displaying the three distinct stages of pearl formation. Each gallery also contains a sculpture on display of either a plane, train, or car made entirely out of oyster shells.
Known as one of Slovenia’s best museums, the Piran Shell and Snail Museum features over 3,000 different shellfish and snails from all around the world. Not only does the museum hold marine shells, but also contains specimens found in rivers, lakes, and caves. The permanent “Magical World of Shells Exhibition” features unusual clams, sea urchins, crabs, sea stars, and more. Shells with incredible patterning, shells shiny enough to have once been used as currency, and rare shells worn by tribal chiefs from distant islands are part of the collection. The show-stopping exhibit is one of the largest snail shells on display: Syrinx aruanus, known as the Australian trumpet or the giant whelk. Biologist Jan Simič, the museum’s head specialist, arranged and enriched the exhibition, adding shells from his own collection and providing accompanying educational text. The museum is highly informative and stresses environmental awareness and nature conservation.
The U.S. has some of the largest and most extensive scientific shell collections in the world. The National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution alone holds over 20 million molluscan specimens. Here are some of the other top collections in the country:
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia has one of the world’s greatest archives of nature. The variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and patterns of the thousands of mollusk species (so far over 100,000 named!) help reflect millions of years of evolution and the Earth’s biodiversity.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County also hosts a Malacology department (the study of mollusks) that promotes the scientific study, conservation, and acquisition of extant species. Malacology staff, associates, and volunteers sort, identify, and verify specimen identifications and incorporate them into a database where you can search more than 118,000 digitized records from the collection.
The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago established their Division of Invertebrates in 1938, building massive mollusk collections of terrestrial snails and bivalve mussels. Since then, they have added marine molluscan groups, and the collection now has 340,000 cataloged mollusk lots, with approximately 4.5 million specimens, ranking among the top collections in North America.
The Florida Museum of Natural History is located in Gainesville and houses its own malacology collection. The collection now has over 30,000 species among 400,000 lots of specimens. It’s among the five largest in the U.S. and the second-largest online accessible collection.
Last but not least, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum in Sanibel, Florida, is devoted solely to shells and mollusks. The museum has over 30 permanent exhibits, including a section devoted to live mollusks which opened in March 2020. The website at shellmuseum.org has information about current exhibits, findings from their ongoing research, and a Southwest Florida Shell Guide to identify your seashell finds.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2021 issue.Photo credits, top to bottom, left to right: Richard Mortel, Richard Mortel, Sergey Galyonkin, Angel Miklashevsky, The Shell Grotto, Bruce Stokes, Jeffrey’s Bay Shell Museum, India Shell Museum, Piran Shell and Snail Museum, Kirsti Scott, Susan Montgomery, Mark Brandon, Jillian Cain Photography, EQRoy.