For many years, Sanibel shell enthusiasts dreamed of establishing a museum dedicated entirely to shells and mollusks and their importance to the environment. Sanibel Island, long considered one of the world's best shell-collecting areas, would be the appropriate location. The feasibility of such a project began in 1984 with a $10,000 bequest by Charlene McMurphy, a local shell collector. In 1985, consummate shell craftsman, and Charlene's husband, Rolland McMurphy selected a committee of Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club members to explore the formation of a museum. The Founding Committee, chaired by Betts Johnson, was established in 1985. In the fall of 1986, the Founding Committee evolved into The Shell Museum and Research Foundation, Inc. In the same year the foundation filed for incorporation as a non-profit organization in the State of Florida. In October of the same year, the IRS recognized the Foundation as a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity. In May 1987, the board of trustees approached world-renowned malacologist R. Tucker Abbott, Ph.D., seeking his vision and suggestions for the museum. Dr. Abbott became an active supporter and, following his suggestion, the foundation's name was changed in 1989 to The Shell Museum and Educational Foundation, Inc. In early 1988, the Museum began its first membership campaign. In July 1988, the City of Sanibel declared the Museum an educational institution.
In early 1989, pioneer island residents Francis, Samuel, and John Bailey promised to deed over to the Museum eight acres of land situated in the wetlands south of Sanibel-Captiva Road. At the same time, approvals for the use of the site were granted by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Still in 1989, the Foundation formally retained the services of R. Tucker Abbott as a consultant to the board. His association first as a consultant then as its Founding Director imparted to the Museum substantial and definitive professional standing. In 1990, the Bailey brothers materialized their generous gift of eight acres of land in memory of their parents, Frank P. Bailey and Annie Mead Matthews. In their honor, the museum is named The The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, a facility of The Shell Museum and Educational Foundation, Inc. In January 1990, the Museum opened its capital campaign office, and Dr. Abbott invited actor Raymond Burr to serve as campaign chairman. Dr. Abbott was appointed Founding Director in 1991. In February 1994, the City of Sanibel issued the building permit; construction began on May 6, 1994. A $750,000 loan was available from Sunbank/Southwest Florida (now Suntrust), but this was contingent upon the Foundation receiving a construction grant from the Florida Cultural Facilities Program. The $241,000 construction grant was awarded in August 1994. The Museum opened its building to the public in June 1995, with the official grand opening on November 18, 1995, two weeks after the death of the Museum's Founding Director Dr. Abbott. In the same month, a committee chaired by board member Bernard Waterman interviewed applicants for the position of scientific director of the Museum. That position would be filled in February 1996, by marine biologist José H. Leal, Ph.D.
Since its opening to the public in 1995, the Museum has operated as an information and reference center for national and international scientists, students, and shell enthusiasts who are interested in the marine, terrestrial, and land mollusks of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. Immediately after the beginning of his tenure in early 1996, Dr. Leal started an effective outreach program that includes special talks on mollusks and their environment. This program has been given in conservancy organizations, elementary, middle and high schools, home-schooling groups, churches, shell clubs, community groups, retirement homes, and other public organizations. The Museum established the Evening Lecture Series in early 1996, a winter season (October-April) monthly series of lectures given by leading specialists in malacology and natural history. The series is now given in collaboration with the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club. The Museum started an official collaboration with Lee County schools in 1997, and helps pay for transportation and admission of schoolchildren. The Museum launched the R. Tucker Abbott Visiting Curatorship award in 1997. The competitive Curatorship consists of a lump sum awarded to a leading scientist who wishes to help curate and organize part of the Museum's mollusk collection. The Museum is also engaged in several work collaborations with national and international educational and research institutions. Overall, the Museum now offers facilities in its collection and research area for visiting researchers, interns, and students. In 1997 the Museum became the publisher (with Dr. Leal as Editor) of The Nautilus, the oldest English-language malacological journal (since 1886). The Museum's most recent long-range plan, adopted in November 1998, outlined its educational and scientific goals: "Education has been and will remain the major goal of the Museum, and since 1998, the Museum has greatly expanded and diversified its educational programs...A major portion of research at the Museum is a result of or should result in collection-related activities. Visits by scientists and students are evidence of the comprehensive scope and importance of the collection." The original debt of $750,000 was, with the help of a donation from the estate of Mrs. Bernice Plummer, liquidated in July 1999. In May 2000 the Museum established its Cultural Endowment Fund, consisting of an initial principal of $360,000. In August 2000, the Shell Museum and Educational Foundation, Inc. was designated a Cultural Sponsoring Organization by Florida's Division of Cultural Affairs. On the occasion of its fifth anniversary in November 2000, the Museum launched a new version of its Web site (www.shellmuseum.org) The site is updated almost daily and offers a virtual tour of Museum exhibits, promotes its programs, and hosts an online identification guide of seashells, its library records, and collection catalogue.
The Museum began its accreditation process in 2002 by receiving a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services/American Association of Museums. The grant enabled a surveyor to visit in 2003, which was the first stage of the AAM's Museum Assessment Program. The Museum received a Conservation Assessment Program grant from IMLS in 2004, which allowed a conservator to assess the Museum's Collection and Research Department. Worldwide, professionals in the fields of environmental and marine sciences, biology, and ecology use Museum resources regularly. Dr. Leal is an adjunct professor at Florida Gulf coast University and the University of Miami, and a temporary faculty member at the University of Alabama. From July 2003 to July 2004, he was president of the American Malacological Society. In that capacity, he held the 2004 annual meeting on Sanibel, with the Museum as hosting institution. The Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club also played a prominent role in helping host the event. The Museum has established strong ties with many public and private sector organizations, including the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization, Smithsonian Institution, Museu de Zoologia and Universidade de Sao Paulo in Brazil, Florida Museum of Natural History, the Conchologists of American, Southwest Florida Library Network, Sanibel Public Library, The Sanibel School, Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, and shell clubs throughout Florida.