The Worlds of Seashells

The Worlds of Seashells

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It’s with these words that visitors are greeted on entering the Shell Museum, which was recently transferred to its new site in the Place du Moulin, Heritage Bel Ombre. Apart from their intrinsic function,
Seashells, natural objects but also cultural ones, have been astonishing, intriguing and inspiring collectors, scientists and artists for centuries. Seashells have an aesthetic appeal and have attracted many myths, some of our own and some from distant countries, as well as fascination with their form and how they function biologically. Housing 8,000 specimens from the collection of the conchologist, Eric Le Court de Billot, World of Seashells is a revelation and more than worth a visit.

Deceptive appearance

Incredibly, there are more than 75,000 seashell species around the world. The museum has classified the specimens by family in accordance with the indexing system of the World Register of Marine Species 2018. But what is a seashell? It is the spiral or cone-shaped external skeleton of a mollusk. With a ribbed surface or covered in spines, decked with pearly or shimmering colors and a geometric form that only nature could have created, seashells come in an amazing variety of shapes. However, above and beyond their stunning beauty, they provide an excellent form of defense against predators.
Seashells, natural objects but also cultural ones, have been astonishing, intriguing and inspiring collectors, scientists and artists for centuries.

A visit reveals some fascinating anecdotes. For example, the divine proportion of seashells has attracted mathematicians and scholars since Antiquity and the museum gives a very clear explanation of the link between shells and the golden ratio. Gods such as Venus and Aphrodite in Greco-Roman mythology or Yemoja (the Yorubas’ goddess of the sea) and Vishnu amongst Hindus are depicted with a shell, a scallop or a conch. One of the museum’s texts reads, “In all cultures and civilizations, shells are part of the way water is depicted as a symbol of fertility, purification and rebirth.”

Beauty in danger

As well as the marvelous displays, the museum also informs visitors about the risks arising from the overexploitation of seashells. Marine pollution also accelerates the loss of species such as bivalves (two-valved hinged-shell mollusks) which are filter feeders, absorbing heavy metals and organic pollutants. Moreover, ocean acidification has a direct impact on the lives of mollusks. If we wish to continue to be able to appreciate the treasured presence of seashells on our beaches and in our oceans, now more than ever we have to rethink our lifestyles and how we interact with our environment.

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