Richmond Home
Cypraea tigris Linnaeus (Tiger Cowrie), Origin unknown, 5 x 3 3/8 x 2 5/8 inches. Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature, University of Richmon Museums, Gift of Lora McGlasson Robins, R0000.107.28. Photograph by Katherine Wetzel.
Jul 15, 2003
throughFeb 15, 2004

All in the Family: Shells from the Permanent Collection

Print this event Add to Outlook Add to iOS Device Add to Google Calendar Add to Google Calendar
On July 15, 2003, the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature opened All in the Family: Shells from the Permanent Collection. The museum’s permanent collection of more than 20,000 shells comes from six continents and demonstrates the complexity and variety of shell species. Shells constitute the exoskeletons (exterior skeletons) of a group of organisms called mollusks. The exoskeletons are extremely important to mollusks, as they provide them with shape, protection, and even camouflage.

This exhibition will focus on Cowries, Helmets, Tritons, Cones, and Abalones, — the common names for specimens from five families chosen for their unique characteristics. In scientific classification, every species falls under a particular genus, which is part of a larger family. One family can hold an unlimited number of species, and members of one species share the same specific characteristics.

Approximately 200 living species have been found of shells in the Cypraeidae family, commonly known as Cowries. These shiny shells are prized for their shape and attractive colors. Cowries were first used as a form of currency around 1200 b.c.e. in China, and were also used by cultures in Egypt, Africa, and the Mediterranean. In fact, Chinese rulers in 1000 b.c.e. decided to model their new bronze and copper currency after the cowrie’s shape.

Shells of the family Cassidae, or Helmets, are best recognized as the shells that are used for making cameos. These shells can be found in warm waters all over the world, from North America to Africa to East Asia. Since the Roman Empire, people have eaten the animals within these shells. In addition, the helmet shells have been used to make jewelry and musical instruments.

The Cymatiidae family, also known as Tritons, is comprised of some of the largest living Gastropods (a type of mollusk). The name “triton” refers to the broad lip and column-like fold that gives the shell a prominent flared opening. Some of these shells have been used as trumpets, and according to Greek legend, Triton, the son of Neptune, caused tremendous waves in the ocean by blowing a trumpet shell. Members of this family, such as the Distorsio clathrata can be found in areas worldwide, including the waters of the Mid-Atlantic.

There are 500 to 600 known species of Conidae, also called Cones. Some of these creatures have venom that is powerful enough to be lethal to humans. The venom from Cones is currently being tested for medicinal purposes such as treating stroke and heart disease patients. This carnivorous family feeds on other mollusks, worms, and small fish, and are widely distributed in tropical seas.

The term Haliotis means “sea ear,” and refers to the flattened shape of the shell. Highly prized as food in Japan, the Haliotidae, or Abalones, have become scarce from overharvesting. Abalones are also collected for mother of pearl, which is the inside lining of their shells. Mother of pearl is used in cameos, jewelry, beads, buttons, and inlays.

The exhibition is co-curated by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, Assistant Director, University Museums; Sandra Higgins, Collections Manager, University Museums; and Maya Maini (AW’04), a senior environmental studies major at the University of Richmond and a summer fellow at University Museums.