Browsing the Collection Geographically

February 20, 2018

Now Available: Browse the Penn Museum object collection geographically, via an interactive map. Choose from over 1,100 locations around the world, which provide access to more than 92% of the Penn Museum’s collections online.

The Collections Map. A geographic way to browse the Penn Museum collections.

Since we launched the online collections in 2011, there was always the intention of providing a way to browse the collection geographically. The initial mock up of our online collections homepage (below) incorporated a map but it did not launch with one.

Map by Curatorial Section – Amy Ellsworth

Producing a collections map proved much harder than originally thought. The online collections site has always provided the ability to browse objects by Curatorial Section. The easy but inelegant solution would have been to use some sort of image map to link to the objects in each Curatorial Section. That was not without its issues though, our Curatorial Sections often geographically overlap, so drawing lines on a map would be somewhat arbitrary and the objects linked therein would be at best partially inaccurate.

Since 2011, the idea of a geographic collections map had been placed on the back burner. Sometime in early 2017, after launching the third iteration of our online collections, I started a process which would take the collections map from vaporware to reality.

The Process

As usual, the project, conceptually, seemed easy. My loose plan involved throwing 8,000 or so placenames at Google’s Geolocation service and recording the resulting lat/long coordinates. I’d then place those coordinates on a Google map as map markers and have those markers link to the faceted search for that placename on our online collections website.

While that plan was relatively easy to implement, the devil was in the details of manually verifying that the service correctly geolocated the placename, fixing incorrectly geocoded placenames, and finding geocoordinates for placenames that resulted in zero results from the service. I will say that Google’s geolocation service did a great job as a first pass. Wikipedia/Geohack, Mapcarta, and various other sources filled in a bunch of gaps.

However, having 1,000+ map markers on a map isn’t exactly pretty, it’s actually almost unusable. So I implemented Google Maps – Marker Clustering. When you look at the map you will see different color areas with numbers on them. The number represents how many map markers are found in that area and changes dynamically when you zoom in or out. When you zoom in far enough in a particular area, you’ll be able to see and click on the individual (red) map markers which link to the object collections.

In addition, we’ve added some featured locations under the map to browse through. We hope to continue to add more geolocations on the map and featured locations as well.

Original Collections Homepage Mockup
Image by Amy Ellsworth

I’ve learned a tremendous amount about where the Penn Museum collections originate and places in the world that I never really knew existed. The project was easily the deepest dive into geography (and cartography?) I’ve ever had. The goal of this map is to help make our collections more accessible and provide an easy interface to browse. I hope you have fun exploring!