You might not think too much of them, but it turns out seashells have a long and fascinating history, and that’s exactly` why they were the focus of the latest exhibit at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. The Academy hosted the Philadelphia Shell Show Oct. 21 and overhauled its facilities to house shell-based displays and activities. Although most of the events were catered to children, the subject matter was incredibly in-depth, as malacologists and hobbyists alike came to display their prized specimens and teach others about their craft. All in all, there was something for everyone at the event.
Because the Academy is really geared toward teaching others about the natural sciences, some of the events were academic seminars. For instance, one of the main events was a lecture by Dan Distel about shipworms, a type of mollusk long thought to be a worm based on the shape of its body. These weren’t your typical “dry” academic lectures, though, as speakers engaged the audiences and adopted a more conversational feel during the presentation. The presentation on alligators, for example, had a question-and-answer session where children asked many questions about the lifestyle, eating habits and ecosystem of alligators. Participation, along with an obviously fascinated audience, really made the lecture more special than a simple lengthy speech about shells. Also, the fact that the presenter was holding an alligator while explaining that it would readily bite her hand off given the opportunity put any remaining boredom to rest.
The real strengths of the festival, however, were the interactive displays and hands-on activities throughout the Academy. Children could make their own shell jewelry or shell creatures and play shell-based games centering on identifying types of shells. There was even a (temporary) tattoo parlor with all kinds of shell tattoos. Other events, such as the live-animal touch table, had adults just as involved. At that table, experts brought out specimens from a tank and allowed any visitor to touch the mollusks they had on hand. Though touching the creatures was very interesting, the best part of the exhibit was unarguably the experts’ knowledge of mollusks. While audience members felt the shell or the creature, the expert told them everything about what they were seeing and touching, from the creature’s habitat to its age based only on the size and appearance of the shell. It gave the impression that the handlers really knew their stuff when it came to shells.
Though the experts had an impressive repertoire of knowledge, the hobbyists really gave them a run for their money when it came to teaching others about shells and mollusks. On the bottom floor of the Academy, dealers displayed their various shell collections and talked to potential customers about how to collect salable shells and how to prepare or otherwise create marketable products from shells. It didn’t have the academic feel of the presentations, but just by listening to the seashell sellers you got the impression that these were experts in their own way. That’s not to say that they didn’t know about mollusks in general, as there was some talk of how the creatures lived, but it was interesting to hear a different side of the story from the perspective of salesmen. The sales floor also added a nice touch to the festival because it acted as a unique gift shop to visitors especially interested in shells. There, visitors could buy higher-quality goods that were a bit more interesting than typical museum baubles; the selling floor was a bit like a high-quality flea market for shells.
Apart from the sellers were other hobbyists more into creating displays or presentations typically for competitions. On the upper floors, competitors displayed their unique shell collections and mollusk studies to be judged. There were displays that were educationally focused to inform viewers about particular subjects in malacology alongside artistic displays that used shells as a medium in creating a certain aesthetic. One of the best parts of the show, however, was that grade school students were also able to compete and show off their hard work. It’s intriguing to see how professionals display their skills, but it’s inspirational to see the next generation trying as well.
Overall, the Philadelphia Shell Show and Festival at the Academy of Natural Sciences turned out to be a very successful event, educating patrons while at the same time letting them experience the world of mollusks hands-on. If you’re truly interested in the world of mollusks, fear not — the Academy is giving behind-the-scenes tours in February 2013 that will allow visitors to see the Academy’s private malacology collection of around 10 million specimens. Knowing the level of quality the Academy put into the Shell Show, the trip will surely be worthwhile.