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The Shell Man [Pictures + Video]

Photos and video by Dan O’Connor

The North Shore Shell Museum is a spot for collecting, connecting and reconnecting—collecting shells from the island, connecting with friends over meals that might end in an impromptu fungi session, reconnecting with the past of the Virgin Islands through Egberth Donovan’s paintings of slogans and ships, and reconnecting with memories by incorporating Egberth’s creations into your home.

Tucked back off the main coast road in Carrot Bay, Tortola, The North Shore Shell Museum initially arrests visitors’ attention with the collage of shells, signs, salvaged flotsam, and driftwood. The brightly decorated exterior, which seems to have organically evolved out of necessity, beckons passersby to explore the treasures within its shell-lined walls.

Proprietor Egberth Donovan and I sat at a table on the second floor of the museum—in a bright, airy, sparsely decorated restaurant where he serves breakfast, lunch and dinner made from locally sourced ingredients, including local fish, coconut, and the breadfruit tree that framed our view of Carrot Bay. “We roast it, we bake it, we make soup from it, we make salads,” he said of the starchy fruit. He mentioned local lobster, conch, and fish that come in fresh daily from the fishermen across the street. “This is the place everybody come for lobster.” He listed off the types of pancakes—mango, coconut, banana, guava. “You can walk in for breakfast and lunch,” he said, but dinner goes by reservation. Often at these dinners, he told me, he’ll be asked if there’s live music. That’s when he starts passing out the instruments and makes everyone a part of the rotating fungi band in the dining room.

“We give you an example of how people used to live in the past…When people come in to have a drink…I set the fungi band up, and everybody play because I have all the instruments there…That’s the way how our people used to do it in the past days…In those times, everybody’d get involved…People come and ask me if there’s a band, and I say, ‘You is the band, I’m the band.’”

Though his restaurant is much-lauded and much-loved by tourists, it’s the museum itself, full of Egberth’s collections and creations, that is the main attraction. Egberth told me that he started the museum twenty-five years ago when a ninety-five-year-old neighbour he called Uncle Joe nostalgically mentioned a shell collection at home growing up, “and I was a bit excited because I didn’t see many shells on this island, so I asked him, and he started naming out the islands to me” where Egberth could find the shells. At that time, Egberth had been mainly looking for conch shells, and he collected them to sell them at first then began turning them into art. The room was originally a one-room building, but has now been built up and out. In contrast with the open, unadorned spaces of the restaurant, the museum is full, literally floor to ceiling, with shells—loose shells, shell mobiles and wind chimes, boats made from shells and driftwood, shell bracelets and necklaces. “This is a boat we call the log boat,” he said, pointing to one made from scraps of wood and sailcloth. “This is how we learned to swim in the olden days,” he said. “When your parents build one of these, it has a rudder to the back, you’re gonna tie a string on it, and you’re gonna just watch it sail, but you has a string that it can’t get away from you, but when you can swim, then you take off the string, but then you can try to swim to catch the boat.” Though he said that children these days no longer use that method to learn how to swim, he continues to make and sell the little log boats.

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The floor and several walls, made of shells and cement, have taken Egberth a long time to make. “I decided, it’s a shell museum,” he said, “so the floor should be in shell.” In addition to the shells are brightly painted pieces of wood with sayings or drawings of maps or old sloops. The phrases, painted in bright orange or blue or green on a white background, come from conversations Egberth had with Virgin Islanders of the past. He got the idea to record their sayings years ago. He said, “I was watching how the island was going, and I tell myself, ‘Someone has to try to live with the history of this country to move on.’ And that’s where I come in.” The sayings often deal with interpersonal relationships in a humorous way that also reflects the voice of former Virgin Islanders. Each painted locution invokes a character, and the paintings feel like found poems.

“This one here, this is the one here that makes me laugh, ‘The old man with a beautiful lady, but he cannot sleep with his eyes closed. Hell.’ There’s an old gentleman telling me about that, he was speaking about his wife. He said, ‘She was beautiful, but I couldn’t sleep with my two eyes closed.’”

I asked him if he sold his signs and sayings, including the many signs advertising the museum itself, to which he replied, “Anything is for sale. You talk with us; we charge you a little something for it.”

Above me and beside me hung thousands (maybe millions?) of shells. Wind chimes made from shells, fishing line, driftwood and bamboo hung beside mobiles made from the tops of bleach bottles, shells, and beads. I asked him if he considered himself an artist, and he said, “Sometimes if I’m a little not too comfortable, and I know a guy who’s an artist, sometimes I stop and I ask him questions. That’s how I get my ideas. I meet some of the guys, and I ask them how to draw this or how to put this, you know like that? And that’s where I’m really catching up with things…A lot of good people has ideas, but unless you don’t talk with them, you don’t know what you would get. I follow up on a lot of things like that.” Egberth’s conversations have encouraged him to capture the natural and oral history of the Virgin Islands. “I’m still hanging on and trying to do it, that people can able to get a idea because this island has come a long way from how it used to be, and each day, I keep opening my ideas more and more through talking with folks, and I get better ideas as I go on.”

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