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Smithsonian Picks Colorado Paleontologist Kirk Johnson To Lead National Museum Of Natural History

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Kirk Johnson
Kirk Johnson

WASHINGTON — A paleontologist who undertook a major excavation of ice age fossils of mammoths and mastodons in Colorado was named the next director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History on Thursday.

Kirk Johnson, currently chief curator and vice president of research at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, will take command of one of the nation's most visited museums in late October.

As the Smithsonian's largest museum on the National Mall, the natural history museum has about 300 resident scientists and holds more than 126 million specimens and artifacts, making it the largest natural history collection in the world. It draws about 7 million yearly visitors on average.

Johnson said he is a "longtime museum guy" and that reaching so many visitors makes this a dream job.

"In 10 years in Washington, we'll see 60 to 70 million people," he said in an interview. "It's breathtaking to imagine that because really that's what a museum is about is communicating with people about the natural world."

Johnson, 51, joined the Denver museum in 1991. It draws about 1.4 million visitors a year, mostly from the Denver area. In 2010 and 2011, Johnson led an excavation near Snowmass Village, Colo., that unearthed more than 5,400 of bones of mammoths, mastodons and other ice age animals in a construction zone for a new reservoir.

The Yale-educated expert in geology and paleobotany has written nine books, including "Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies."

In May, the Smithsonian announced plans to build a new dinosaur hall on the National Mall over the next seven years, which ties in closely with Johnson's background. Businessman David H. Koch donated a record $35 million for the project.

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said Johnson's expertise in paleontology was a factor, but not the deciding one in his selection from a wide pool of applicants.

"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," Clough said. "I know he's interested in using digital outreach as a means to expand the number of people that museum impacts."

Beyond the dinosaur hall, the museum also plans to add an education center and a DNA-based research lab. Johnson will oversee about 460 employees and a federal budget of $68 million.

Johnson said the museum doesn't "need to be fixed, but it needs to be optimized." He was drawn by the rare opportunity to overhaul the dinosaur hall and to help the museum evolve in the way it communicates and engages people.

"The visiting audience is changing dramatically and rapidly. There's lots more competition for their time," he said. "One of the things I would love to do is take the national museum to a position of national leadership ... and help museums in general face the challenges that are coming at us."

Johnson succeeds Cristian Samper, a biologist who has led the museum since 2003 and who served as the Smithsonian's acting secretary in 2007 and 2008. He is leaving to become the president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, which includes the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo and New York Aquarium.

While Johnson is used to spending months digging for fossils in the field each year, he said he has been moving toward museum management. He still plans to visit Smithsonian scientists working around the world.

"My priority is going to be running the museum, but you can't take that shovel out of my hands," he said. "That'll happen when I die."

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National Museum of Natural History: http://www.mnh.si.edu/

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Smithsonian names new director of Natural History Museum