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Perspectives Materials

Immaterial: Shells

It all began with the call of the conch.

Jul 6, 2022

Detail view of the inside of a conch shell with the text

Read full transcript here

Hold a seashell to your ear and listen for whispers from an underwater world. Shells connect us to the ocean, whose depths remain largely unexplored and uncharted by humans. We are captivated by their many colors, twisting forms, and the hidden creatures we sometimes find inside. But there is one shell that intrigues us more than any other: the conch shell. Across time and throughout history, we have relied on the trumpet formed by the conch’s elegantly spiraled helix to signal to each other across distances farther than our own voices can carry. We have used it to make music. And we have integrated its mystical tones into community rituals and spiritual practices. Within The Met collection, the oldest shell trumpets date back to ancient civilizations across Oceania, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, where conch shells have become a metaphysical symbol of fertility, luck, infinity, and interconnectedness.

We begin this episode with the sound of a conch shell being blown from the mezzanine balcony of The Met’s Arms and Armor Court, filling the space with an otherworldly sound. Played by Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, curator of brass instruments in The Met’s Department of Musical Instruments, the conch hangs at the center of The Met’s Fanfare installation, which features 74 instruments spanning two millennia and five continents to explore the artistry, diverse forms, and interwoven uses of brass instruments throughout time and place. The conch is given pride of place because in Western vernacular, it is considered the first “brass” instrument, with evidence of its use found all over the planet. The most recent discovery of ancient conch shells being used to make music was in a cave in the French Pyrenees. These shells were brought to the cave more than 17,000 years ago, all the way from the Atlantic Ocean, over 150 miles away.

Strauchen-Scherer sounds the conch in the Fanfare installation over The Met’s Arms and Armor Court

Strauchen-Scherer traces our fascination with the conch shell as an instrument, a foundation for geometry, and a beacon for spirituality throughout history and across the globe, which explains why hundreds of artworks inspired by the conch can be found in departments throughout the museum. There is a necklace from Panama made with conch shell dating back to the 5th century CE, and a 10th century sandstone stella of the Hindu god, Vishnu, holding a conch as a weapon to destroy evil. Another is a helmet shaped from steel and designed to resemble a sea conch;ade in Japan in the 17th century, Arms and Armor research fellow Markus Sesko tells us it was worn into battle by a high ranking commander to ensure he was easily recognized by his troops.

Along the way, Strauchen-Scherer introduces us to jazz trombonist and “shellist” Steve Turre, who has played with Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Santana, and has been a member of the Saturday Night Live Band for almost thirty years. His mastery of the instrument can be heard on albums like 1993’s Sanctified Shells or 1995’s Rhythm Within. Turre traces his personal connection with conch from the San Francisco nightclub where he first heard its musical possibilities to a gig in Mexico City, where he learned that playing the marine mollusk’s hard outer casing is a family tradition that goes back hundreds—if not thousands—of years. 

Strauchen-Scherer and Turre playing two syrinx aruanus at Turre’s home in New Jersey

We hear from Jim Waterman, a professional shell collector who has found more than 50,000 conch shells in his lifetime and sold more than 20,000 conch trumpets. Jim is the proprietor of Shell World, an emporium in Key West, FL, an area where conch shells are so ubiquitous, locals call themselves “conchs.” Archeologist Miriam Kolar, takes us to a site in the Andes mountains where more than 20 ancient shell trumpets have been found. And we learn about the biology of the underwater creatures that produce the wondrous spirals that connect us to the sea, the planet, and to each other.

Listen for the whole story, and scroll through the gallery below to take a closer look at the art mentioned in the episode and some highlights made from shells in The Met collection.


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