Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Where in the World is Alexander Wetmore?

Alexander Wetmore and
Watson Perrygo, Chico, Panama
As a young girl I loved playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.” The game intertwined history, geography and crime solving. It was awesome. So, it is to no surprise that I have become engaged and interested in the possibilities geo-tagging has for our archival collections. Geo-tagging is the process of adding geographic information metadata to images, audio files, video files, etc. This information helps create maps, which brings the historical record to life and allows users to interact with collections.
To start out in the geo-tagging realm, I decided to use our collection of Alexander Wetmore images to get our feet wet. Wetmore, the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian and an ornithologist, amassed thousands of images over a twenty year span from his ornithological expeditions to Panama and so we decided that this would be an excellent test for cataloguing the geographic data.  To begin adding the geographic information to the records we started with a cataloguing field that included information about the Country, State Provence, County, City, Community/Neighborhood, Site (i.e.: temple, statue, river), Notes, Latitude, and Longitude.  What I have found is that finding the latitude and longitude, though often a difficult endeavor, is the most useful information when providing geo-tag information. 

Google Map of Wetmore Image
Latitude and Longitude Point
Fortunately for me, the Wetmore images include full caption information and usually provide the location where the image was taken. What makes finding the latitude and longitude difficult is that the images are often in remote locations. The caption often mentions a nearby river or village, but not the exact latitude and longitude.  Essentially we create an educated best guess on the latitude and longitude based on the nearby village name, what river Wetmore was traveling that day and what the other images taken on that day showed. Once you have a latitude and longitude, linking the image to a Google map is easy.

Collections Search Center Record

First you enter the latitude and longitude into the Google Maps search bar. When the search result appears it will come up as a red pin point. Right click on that pin point and click on “What’s Here?” After clicking on that option a green arrow will appear. This has created a stable link that you can now use on a website with your records. To copy the link go to the top right of the tool bar and click on the link icon. A dropdown menu will appear that provides you with a url. We utilized the information two ways. First we have added the Google url to the individual records in our Collections Search Center. We have also created a map that users can explore to see where the records are from.
An interesting challenge that has arisen during the cataloguing process deals with areas that have changed names and borders over time. Several of the villages visited by Wetmore have been renamed. Additionally, local names do not always jive with those known to Google Maps. To reconcile the difference we quickly realized that the modern name has to be used in the geographic information, but a detailed note about the name history of the area is necessary to make the record as accurate as possible. Likewise, borders change over time. Borders shift due to politics and war. Once again we have to rely on a detailed note field that explains the history of the border change. It is important to keep all of this information with the record so that users will understand why the image might say Alexander Wetmore in Panama, but be located in Colombia.
Collections Search Generated
Wetmore Panama Map
What I find to be the most interesting thing about mapping the images to Google are the modern day images that show up in the sidebar of the map. It is really fascinating to look at an area and compare and contrast to what it looked like over sixty years ago. This then and now comparison is also a vital part of another geo-tagging project the Smithsonian Institution Archives is involved with. Recently, SIA  has just launched a host of images in HistoryPin HistoryPin is an online database of images historical and modern from across the globe. We have recently added historical images of the Smithsonian’s museums to the site. For more information about this interesting new project check out this post on The Bigger Picture Blog.
Geo-tagging images literally puts the world at your finger tips. You can track a historic expedition over times, see the trends that may emerge from places where artifacts were sent, and compare what the landscape of a city looked like in the past to modern day and have your own geographical adventure.


  1. Geo-tagging is amazing! Thank you for this very informative post, I enjoyed reading about your process and challenges with creating these visual references.

  2. Thanks! The Anacostia Community Museum has also done some geotagging on images from the Gullah communities:!siarchives&uri=full=3100001~!292631~!0#focus,-81.285009&hl=en&ll=31.591404,-81.283722&spn=0.267293,0.398941&sll=31.586887,-81.285099&sspn=0.066827,0.099735&num=1&t=h&z=11