Maryland’s coastal plain is laden with fossil plants from the early Cretaceous period, and among those harvesting specimens is the new director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History.
“Fossils are everywhere!” exclaims Kirk Johnson, who assumes his new post on Oct. 29. “Think about it: An amateur paleontologist once found a fossil whale in the Potomac. Just because I’m director of the museum doesn’t mean I’ll put my shovel away.”
The incident Johnson was referring to took place in 1974, when Douglas Ralph Emlong spotted a weathered fossil poking from the eastern bank of the Potomac. Before long, he had excavated a porpoise braincase, a ray spine, and three shark teeth—all within a few hundred yards of a large sewer pipeline. Johnson, 51, is currently chief curator and vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
At the Smithsonian, Johnson will manage a staff of 460 and a $98.8 million budget. “Three things happen at a natural-history museum: It’s where we do scientific research, it’s where we keep the collections, and where we share these things with all of our visitors.... Museum people have this discussion all the time: Are museums about something, or are they for someone? Of course, the answer is both.”
Johnson grew up in Seattle and graduated from Amherst College—where he spent most of his time working at the Pratt Museum of Natural History. He worked briefly for the U.S. Geological Survey before earning a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from Yale University. His dissertation—“A high resolution megafloral biostratigraphy spanning the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary in the northern Great Plains”—looked to fossil plants to corroborate the theory that an asteroid collision caused the dinosaurs to become extinct.
“Think about it,” he says. “When you go for a walk in the woods, what you see are plants, not cougars. It’s much the same way in the fossil world: The plants are super-common but the animals are quite spectacular and rare.... By studying plants, I was able to show that, yes, there was this huge catastrophe [during] the same time period that debris from the asteroid was deposited.”
After a three-year postdoctoral fellowship mapping tropical rainforest on behalf of the Australian government, Johnson landed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as curator of paleontology. Over the next 20 years, he visited some 1,400 fossil localities around the world, spending more than 50 percent of each year on the road.
Traditionally, museums have been oriented toward families and children, and to appeal to this constituency Johnson has seized on social media.
“You have this oxymoron,” he says. “People working in museums are often middle-aged”—and not necessarily adept tweeters—“but we realize that, if we don’t keep a very close watch on how young people are communicating, natural-history museums have a chance of being irrelevant.”
Johnson succeeds Cristian Samper, who stepped down last month to become president and chief executive of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.
Johnson’s first major project at the Smithsonian will be a renovation of the dinosaur hall.
This article appears in the Sep. 19, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.