The people's paleontologist: Kirk Johnson '78
By Geoffrey Giller & Lakeside Staff
The corridors are dark, lit only by a distant strip of fluorescent bulbs. Around us, the earthly remains of thousands of creatures from across millions of years sit silently in cabinets, waiting to be rediscovered. At the end of one row, a wide leg bone looms out of the shadows, taller than a person. “I like coming down here and just opening random drawers,” says Kirk Johnson ’78. He also looms large in the shadowy corridors — tall, with the solid build of a former rugby player. He flips a switch, illuminating long stretches of green wooden cabinets.
Johnson is director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the largest and most visited natural history museum in the world.
He has taken me deep into the bowels of the museum, an area off-limits to the public. As with most other museums, the vast majority of Natural History’s holdings are never displayed; instead, its 127 million specimens and artifacts — spanning fields from anthropology to entomology to botany — are collected, catalogued, and stored for scientists to use in their research. Right now, we’re in the paleobiology section — Johnson’s specialty.
After visits to 1,400 fossil sites on every continent and more than 20 years at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Johnson became director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The Smithsonian Institution, founded by Congress in 1846, encompasses 19 public museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and nine research institutes. Natural History, which first opened in 1910, is the largest of these in terms of collections, budget ($114 million), and employees (454). Last year, more than 7 million people came through the doors — free of charge, as is the case with all Smithsonian museums.
Johnson became director in 2012 after more than 20 years at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. His career has taken him to 1,400 fossil sites, on every continent. He’s also spent much of his time writing, giving talks, and appearing on television with one broad message: Museums are not just relevant today but crucial. When the Smithsonian asked him to apply for the directorship, he initially demurred. But he soon concluded that there is no better platform for his ideas than the Smithsonian. “They’re going to hand me the keys to a big car,” he says. “If you actually believe what you’re saying, you’ve got to step up and do it.”
Natural history museums, and the Smithsonian’s in particular, have three main roles: They are where experts do basic scientific research; they “inspire and educate our public,” as Johnson told a Congressional committee; and they are “where we keep the treasures of our culture,” he says. To Johnson, these combined roles make natural history museums a “toolkit of the 21st century.”
Today, “Kids are just not getting outside very much. They’re more in-screen, indoors, more afraid.” This, he argues, makes natural history museums especially relevant. They get children excited about the natural world. “They create scientists,” he says — an important goal in its own right.
That was certainly true for Johnson, whose curiosity and affinity for nature started early. His family moved to Seattle a few months after Johnson was born. His father, a psychiatrist, and mother, a photographer, took Kirk and his sister often to explore nearby mountains and tide pools. On summer trips back to his parents’ native states of California and Wyoming, he started collecting arrowheads and fossil shells. At age 6, he began haunting the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, and not too long after, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, the emporium of oddities and quasi-museum on Seattle’s waterfront. There, at age 10, he was mesmerized by the sight of fossilized crabs. As he recounted in a lecture last year at the Burke, “I became very convinced I needed to find some myself.” Eventually he did, on a remote state beach, guided by a fossil collector. When a sledgehammer’s whack to a large, round rock revealed the perfectly preserved crab, “That was it; I was done. I was going to become a paleontologist.”
The remarkable thing about my time at Lakeside was how so many different teachers made lifelong impressions on me.- Kirk Johnson '78
By 13, his mother, "fully fed up with driving me to fossil sites, figured that if she deposited me at the museum, somebody else would do it for her. And, strangely enough, that was true."
That somebody was Wesley Wehr, an artist and volunteer curator at the Burke. Actually Wehr couldn’t drive; but once Johnson got his license the duo set off on fossil-hunting trips around the state. On one such trip, to Republic, a former gold mining town in northeastern Washington, Johnson found a site with numerous leaf fossils, “exquisite things in this rock called paper shale,” he recalled. “You can take this rock and split it like the pages of a book — it will split 10 or 15 times and each page will pop open with some little message from the past.” One little message was the fossilized leaf of a linden tree that turned out to be a newly discovered species. Ten years later, writing a paper on the species, Wehr and his co-author named it Tilia johnsoni in Johnson’s honor.These discoveries played out while Johnson was at Lakeside. He has warm memories of the many teachers and coaches who led him to both sharpen his academic game and build character. “I arrived at Lakeside for 9th grade after a perfectly dismal middle-school experience at a religious school. I thought I was a pretty decent student but actually, I was clueless.” A first clue came when “I was slapped awake with a C-minus on a history paper that I thought was really good. The remarkable thing about my time at Lakeside was how so many different teachers made lifelong impressions on me,” he says, naming a long list of teachers, classes, and experiences from Latin to English, metal shop to chemistry, math to history, and rugby to mountaineering. What he learned above all, Johnson says, was “how to listen, how to be comfortable in my own skin, and how to think for myself.”
Johnson’s passion for paleontology led him to Amherst College, where he helped curate the museum’s fossil collections and earned a bachelor’s degree in geology and fine arts.
He wrote his senior thesis under the guidance of Ed Belt in the geology department. Belt recalls that Johnson arrived from Seattle knowledgeable about fossils but initially was most dedicated to rugby. Only after injuring both knees did Johnson “really settle down and start getting A’s.”
His Amherst thesis examined leaves from the Paleocene, the first geologic epoch after the dinosaurs were wiped out. While working on it, he attended a paleobotany meeting in another town where by chance, his roommate was Leo Hickey, a renowned paleobotanist from the Smithsonian’s natural history museum. “Leo and I hit it off,” says Johnson.
"That was it," Johnson said of finding a fossilized crab on a Washington beach. "I was going to become a paleontologist."
Hickey soon left the Smithsonian to head up the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Johnson started a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania but accompanied Hickey on field expeditions in Montana, Wyoming, and the Arctic. In 1985, Johnson joined Hickey at Yale, earning his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics. Years later, Hickey — who died in 2013 – would tell Belt, “Kirk was the best student I ever had.”
As part of his Ph.D. research, and in subsequent years, he spent many field seasons studying a geologic unit known as the Hell Creek Formation. The formation, which extends into parts of the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming, has been extensively studied both because it is extraordinarily fossil-rich (it is the source of most of the known Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons) and because it shows clear evidence of the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Johnson focused on plants that existed before and after the asteroid impact, finding that many plants had gone extinct with the dinosaurs. According to a Yale newsletter, “His work on fossil plants is widely accepted as some of the most convincing support for the theory that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.”
Johnson’s next stop, in 1991, was the Denver museum, where he worked his way up to become chief curator and vice president of research and collections.
George Sparks, that museum’s president and CEO, recalls a Thursday evening when Johnson came running into his office. A field site had just yielded a new set of fossils, and Johnson was about to go check it out. “He was literally bounding down the hall — and he’s a big guy!” says Sparks. “He reminded me of a little boy on Christmas morning.”During his years in Denver, he oversaw excavations that led to a better understanding of Colorado’s ancient landscapes and the formation of the Rocky Mountains. That included finding the oldest and best preserved fossil rain forest in the world, just a half hour south of Denver.
But his most ambitious undertaking in Colorado was leading an excavation at Aspen’s Snowmass ski area. During a 2010 construction project, workers had turned up mastodon tusks; Johnson and others went to take a look. Their subsequent expedition uncovered a trove of well-preserved ice age skeletons, including giant ground sloths, six mammoths, and 50 mastodons. In a 69-day blitz, Johnson organized more than 300 scientists and field technicians to excavate as many bones as possible before construction resumed. “It was the culmination of all my childhood dreams,” he said at the Burke, “to lead a shovel army into the mountains and extract literally thousands of gigantic bones.”To appeal to a younger generation, museums are moving to produce more digital content. One reason Johnson got the Smithsonian nod was his embrace of popular culture in his outreach. He tweets charmingly as @Leafdoctor; he unabashedly if humorously has called himself a media hound; he appears on NOVA specials.
Then-Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough was quoted in The Huffington Post saying that Johnson’s expertise in paleontology was a factor in his appointment but not the deciding one. “Kirk stood out for his ability to communicate his passion about education, his passion about people learning whether they’re young at heart or just a young person. I know he’s interested in using digital outreach as a means to expand the number of people that the museum impacts.”
Indeed, Johnson told The Washington Post on his arrival in the capital that “I would love to see every kid in the country be a digital member of the nation’s museum.” Already much of its scientific content is available via 11 social-media platforms, websites, and video conferences. Johnson is among the scientists who do live webcasts with schoolchildren. And in January, the museum released a free “Skin and Bones” app that, as Johnson tweeted, “literally puts flesh on bone.”
“Kirk stood out for his ability to communicate his passion about education," Clough told The Huffington Post.
With the app, 13 different skeletons from the museum’s iconic Bone Hall collection of vertebrate skeletons (from vampire bats to a 150-pound Mississippi catfish) “come to life through the advanced technologies of 3-D augmented reality and 3-D tracking.”
More’s to come, including Encyclopedia of Life, a website the museum’s making with a page for every known species on the planet (there are 1.9 million).
At the same time, Johnson believes that kids will visit and continue to be fascinated by what is the traditional strength of natural history museums: the “real stuff” that, in his museum’s case, includes people-pleasers like ammonites and the Hope Diamond and gold nuggets.All over the museum are scenes that support Johnson’s thinking. At its Live Insect Zoo, children fearlessly watch a tarantula eat a cricket, their anticipation evident as the cricket wanders haplessly around the spider’s terrarium.
In the atrium, five teenage boys with backpacks and baseball caps stride purposefully by the African elephant that greets visitors, while in the Hall of Human Origins, a young girl stops to contemplate a bronze statue of a Neanderthal child who is about her size.
Two-plus years into the job, Johnson is still mostly following the strategic plan put together by his predecessor, which notably involves a major renovation of the popular Fossil Hall. Slated to reopen in 2019, the hall will take visitors from the most recent ice age back to early Earth in an exhibit titled “Deep Time.”
A centerpiece of the hall’s dinosaur exhibit will be a recently acquired, nearly complete and extremely rare T. rex skeleton. For now, visitors can see scientists at work through a metal grate as they scan and create 3-D models of all the skeleton’s bones.
The T. rex digitization is an example of science that is often done behind the scenes but that Johnson’s staff has made public. Most people don’t realize that what’s on display represents at most 20 percent of the museum’s operation, a notion the museum is trying to change.
To give the public a full picture of the science taking place at his museum, Johnson needed a full picture himself. So he asked every researcher to write about their research and recent achievements. In 2014 alone, researchers from the museum contributed to the description of more than 500 new species — both extinct species found only as fossils and those still living today.
Johnson has little time for doing research himself these days (though he did tell The Huffington Post, “my priority is going to be running the museum but you can’t take that shovel out of my hand; that’ll happen when I die.”). But the boy who dug for fossils can’t resist wandering through the collections, rediscovering tucked-away specimens. Opening one drawer, he shows me a vaguely horselike fossilized skull. “That’s a really cool animal no one has ever heard of,” he says. “It should be a famous animal. It’s called a Desmostylus.” He points out its teeth. Each one is made up of six individual compartments. “They look like little six-packs,” he says.
He opens a door and we’re suddenly amongst the visitors again. ”I do the whole MBWA thing — Management By Walking Around,” Johnson says, stopping to chat with the visitors, staff, and volunteers who keep the public parts of the museum humming.
“We kind of have the monopoly on time,” Johnson says of natural history museums. “We’re the ones that talk about big time things — 100 million years ago, or 10 million years ago.” By looking back across such massive timescales, Johnson hopes visitors will also look forward.
“Most people think about, at most, an election cycle,” he says. That can lead to shortsightedness on issues such as climate change: “How do we, as humans with our rapidly growing populations, not destroy all the natural ecosystems?” he wonders. Of the stated mission of his museum, to understand the natural world and our place in it, Johnson says, “It’s almost like that mission is written for the 21st century.”
Perhaps equally important: The experience of standing beside a towering T. rex, or examining a leaf fossil, or observing a spider eat a cricket, can change the trajectory of a young person’s life, possibly leaving him or her in perpetual awe of the natural world.
It’s evident that Johnson’s sense of awe has not diminished. “Check this thing out,” he says, opening yet another drawer. “This is like the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen.” It’s a fossil the size and shape of a large sweet potato — a lizard, with perfectly preserved facial features and back scales. Johnson giggles. “Isn’t it wild? A lizard turned to stone.”
This article was published in the Spring/Summer 2015 Lakeside magazine; a version first appeared in Amherst magazine. Geoffrey Giller is a freelance writer and photographer, on Twitter @GeoffreyGiller. Carey Quan Gelernter, Lakeside magazine editor, contributed to this report. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.