Unidentified individuals and members of A. Wetmore’s scientific expedition with bird specimens at María, Coiba Island, 1956.
By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
After cataloging the majority of correspondence and written materials documenting Alexander Wetmore’s collecting efforts, cataloging his photo albums feels a bit like a reunion. I see images of people and places whose names I have read over the weeks. Wetmore was from all appearances a very personable individual; the photo albums reinforce this feeling documenting scientific efforts and friendships with colleagues, staff and acquaintances. Toward the end of Wetmore’s tenure as Secretary of the Smithsonian, he began traveling to Panama to study the native birds. These visits became an annual tradition, continuing after his time as Secretary, when he became a Research Associate. His work culminated in the book The Birds of the Republic of Panamá.
This pasture, where animals can be seen grazing, is in Catival on Coiba Island, Panama. Secretary Alexander Wetmore while on a scientific expedition in Panama to Coiba Island, while completing field work for his four volume work, The Birds of Panama.
A police officer goes ashore pickaback, Coiba Island, 1956
In 1956, Wetmore went to Coiba Island in the gulf of Chiriqui to study native birds. Coiba Island was the site of a penal colony established in 1919. When Panama’s political climate shifted during the military regimes of 1968-1989, the penal colony earned notoriety as a place of political repression and violence.
Guard house and cell-block, la Central, Coiba Island, 1956
It is striking to see a place documented before such infamy. The photographs conjure a mix of emotions. During the course of Wetmore’s visit, he depicts aspects of daily life -- arrival of new prisoners, immaculately kept grounds, daily role-calls-- as well as vegetation, cultivated land, and the birds that live there. Coiba Island’s isolated nature and limited development made it a good collecting location during Wetmore’s time and in the present. After its closure in 2004, interested parties began to push for the establishment of a national park on the site, which occurred later that year. A year later, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) selected Coiba National Park as a World Heritage Site.
Smithsonian's connection with the area continues to the present. Smithsonian Troprical Research Institute (STRI) staff have worked with, UNESCO, the United Nations Foundation and Conservation International and efforts of Smithsonian staff, helping advise outreach and resource management for the national park.
Smithsonian Newsdesk. (2009). “Putting Smithsonian Science to Work: A New Plan for Panama’s Coiba National Park and World Heritage Site”. Retrieved August 31, 2011 from http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/putting-smithsonian-science-work-new-plan-panama-s-coiba-national-park-and-world-heritage-s
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History. (2011). Celebrating 100 Years: The Birds of Panama: Alexander Wetmore and Watson Perrygo in Panama, 1940s-1960s”. Retrieved August 31, 2011 from http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/expeditions/birdsPanama.html
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization .(2011).“Coiba National Park and its Special Zone of Marine Protection”. Retrieved August 31, 2011 from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1138