By Geoffrey Giller’10

Kirk Johnson ’82 takes a science writer behind the scenes of the most visited natural history museum in the world.

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 ’82. 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—spanning fields from anthropology to entomology to botany—are collected, catalogued and stored here for scientists to use in their research. Right now, we’re in the paleobiology section—Johnson’s specialty.

Kirk Johnson ’82 among dinosaurs at Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

“We kind of have a monopoly on time,” Johnson says of natural history museums.
While most people think in terms of election cycles, “we’re the ones that talk about big time things—100 millilon years ago, or 10 million years ago.” Photos of Johnson by Brooks Kraft


The Smithsonian Institution encompasses 19 public museums and galleries, the National Zoo and nine research institutes, with a combined budget of more than a billion dollars. Natural History is the largest of these in terms of budget, employees and collections. Its building on the National Mall opened in 1910, built in part because the Smithsonian needed space for its rapidly growing stock of specimens and artifacts. As the collections continued to expand over the subsequent century, the museum added new wings to its original building. Every day, between 35,000 and 40,000 people come through the doors—free of charge, as is the case with all Smithsonian museums.

Johnson (right) became director in 2012 after more than 20 years at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. His career has taken him to fossil digs 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 place than the Smithsonian to spread his message about the value of museums. “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 in January; and they are “where we keep the treasures of our culture,” he says. To Johnson, these combined roles make natural history museums the “toolkit[s] of the 21st century.”

Most people, however, don’t realize that scientists conduct research in museums. “People are always surprised” when they see the collections, Johnson says. “They think everything is for display.” This ignorance can be perilous: funding for museum research is often among the first budget lines to go in a financial crisis. The public can’t miss what it doesn’t know is there.

While Johnson views museums as essential in the 21st century, there’s no denying they are creations of the 19th—more precisely, in the Smithsonian’s case, 1846, the year it was founded by Congress. “So many things invented in the 19th century are no longer relevant,” Johnson says. “Kids are just not getting outside very much. They’re more in-screen, indoors, more afraid.” People are seldom without their electronics. But 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.

Growing up in Washington State, Johnson went on many fossil-finding expeditions. On one visit, at a remote beach, a fossil collector split open a large, round rock to reveal a perfectly preserved crab. The collector let Johnson keep the fossil. “That was it; I was done,” Johnson told an audience at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum in Seattle this year. “I was going to become a paleontologist.”

That museum is where his mother would drop him off, starting when he was 13, after she’d become “fully fed up with driving me to fossil sites,” he said in the lecture. “She 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, a volunteer curator who took Johnson on fossil-hunting trips around the state. On one such trip the teenager found a site with numerous leaf fossils, including the fossilized leaf of a linden tree that turned out to be a newly discovered species. Ten years later, when Wehr and another scientist published a paper on the species, they named it Tilia johnsoni in Johnson’s honor.

Johnson’s passion for paleontology led him to Amherst—specifically, to the natural history museum (then named the Pratt Museum, now the Beneski). When he visited campus as a high school student, he met Gerry Brophy, the museum’s director at the time. “He said, ‘If you come here you’ll have a job for your entire time here,’” Johnson remembers. Indeed, Johnson helped curate the museum’s fossil collections throughout his four years at Amherst.

(When the Pratt Museum closed about a decade ago so the building could be turned into a first-year dorm, Johnson pushed for the creation of a new museum, rather than simply putting the collections into deep storage. “It’s one of the finer small college museums,” he says of the Beneski, which opened in 2006 in the new geology building.)

Johnson wrote his senior thesis under the guidance of Ed Belt in the geology department. Belt recalls, “He came here from Seattle with a fair amount of background information and experience in fossil collecting.” But initially, Johnson was more dedicated to rugby than to his studies. Only after injuring both knees did Johnson “really settle down and start getting A’s,” says Belt.

Johnson’s 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 Petersham, Mass. “It was a small meeting,” he says, “but almost all of the major players in the field were there.” By chance, his roommate there was Leo Hickey, a renowned paleobotanist from the Smithsonian’s natural history museum. “Leo and I hit it off,” says Johnson, and Hickey helped him finish his thesis work.

Hickey soon left the Smithsonian to join the Yale faculty and head up the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Johnson started a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983, but he joined Hickey on field expeditions in Montana, Wyoming and the Arctic. “It was basically a long academic courtship,” Johnson says. “By 1984 it was completely clear that I would do my Ph.D. with him at Yale.”

Johnson started at Yale in 1985 and spent many field seasons studying a geologic unit in North Dakota known as the Hell Creek Formation. This formation 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. Years later, Hickey told Belt, “Kirk was the best student I ever had.” (The admiration was mutual. “I could not imagine a better advisor,” Johnson wrote in the acknowledgements of his Yale dissertation, thanking Hickey—who died in 2013—for his “companionship and collaboration in the Arctic and out West, brutal criticism, excellent advice, and friendship,” as well as for practicalities like “his ’71 Chevy Blazer, pick-axe, cleared leaf collection, home brew.”)

Johnson’s next stop was the Denver museum, where he became chief scientist in 2004 and devoted much time to field and expedition work. 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.”

Johnson’s most ambitious undertaking in Colorado was an excavation at Aspen’s Snowmass ski area. During a 2010 construction project, workers had turned up mastodon tusks. They called the Denver museum; 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 70-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 Museum, “to lead a shovel army into the mountains and extract literally thousands of gigantic bones.”

To appeal to a younger generation, some people think museums should produce more digital content. Johnson, however, believes that if natural history museums play to their strengths, kids will continue to come—and to be fascinated. “You’re competing in a world where there’s so much digital stuff,” he says. “You’re not going to compete well. Meanwhile, you’ve got all the ammonites and the Hope Diamond and the gold nuggets. Why would you go digital if you’ve got the real stuff?”

Kirk Johnson ’82 in main entrance of Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
One effort to target a younger demographic is the Smithsonian’s new Q?rius center, which introduces teenagers to the science that takes place in museums. Located on the ground floor of the museum, it is part lab, part classroom and part collections vault. Young people come there to meet Smithsonian scientists, to simulate DNA analysis and to examine skull samples.

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. (The adults in attendance aren’t quite as fearless as the children. One older, bearded man says, “She’s going to feed a tarantula? I’m going to back up.”) The children listen attentively as the presenter describes how the tarantula would bite the cricket and then regurgitate digestive fluids into the bug to dissolve its innards. The kids don’t seem to mind the graphic details.

In the Hall of Human Origins, a young girl stops to contemplate a bronze statue of a Neanderthal child who is about her size. In the atrium, a band of five teenaged boys with backpacks and baseball caps stride purposefully past the elephant that greets visitors. They appear to have come on their own.

After less than two years on the job, Johnson has had little time to put new exhibits and initiatives into place. He’s mostly following the strategic plan put together by his predecessor, Cristián Samper. “It’s a good plan, so I’m playing it through,” he says. It involves a major renovation of one of the most popular areas, the Fossil Hall. Slated to open in 2019, the new hall will take visitors from the most recent Ice Age back to the early Earth in an exhibit entitled “Deep Time.”

A centerpiece of the Dinosaur Hall 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. Finding ways to publicize museum research is a nationwide concern, says Chris Norris, president of The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. “We’re not very good about articulating what we do in terms of long-term benefits,” he says, even though such research “ultimately has applications in areas like public health and conservation and resource management.”

But to give the public a full picture of the science taking place at his museum, Johnson needed a full picture, too. So he asked every researcher working at the museum to write about their research and recent achievements. The resulting report is a 575-page tome.

In 2013 alone, researchers from the museum published the discoveries of 392 new species—both extinct species found only as fossils and those still living today. Among these species are the olinguito, a member of the raccoon family from South America; a red-and-black beetle from French Guiana that makes its home in ant nests; and two plants from the Colombian Andes with long, narrow, hairy flowers that are most likely pollinated by hummingbirds.

The research is not limited to finding new species. One ongoing Smithsonian project is the Recovering Voices Initiative, which seeks to document and study the world’s endangered languages and to bring indigenous people to the museum to study and discuss artifacts from their cultures as a way of revitalizing their languages and energizing their communities. Another research focus is on the Arctic—important for scientific understanding of climate change. “In climate change scenarios,” Johnson explains, “the Arctic changes three to four times faster than the rest of the planet.” Yet another project has museum scientists working with the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether fishing regulations are sufficiently protecting dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean.

Johnson holds a tooth of a Desmostylus, a semi-aquatic mammal

Photo by Geoffrey Giller

Johnson is no longer doing the research, 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 sixpacks.”

We come across things that make Johnson less happy, too. Large portions of the collections are disorganized; the labels are either incorrectly filled out or have degraded or been lost over time. One cabinet is labeled Misc Dinosaurs. “When people don’t curate well,” he says, “ subsequent people have a hard time deciding what to do next.” A part of him wants to sit down and start classifying fossils and deciphering the handwriting on century-old labels.

Instead, he opens a door and we’re suddenly amongst the visitors again. “I do the whole MBWA thing—Management By Walking Around.” He chats with the visitors, staff and volunteers who keep the public parts of the museum humming. He then leads me back through more hallways, opening doors with the key he got when he became director: “Opens every door,” he says. “Haven’t found one I can’t get into yet.”

Up some stairs and through yet another door, we emerge into the rotunda at the center of the museum. Six floors below is the main entrance, with the elephant; people flow steadily in through the doors. Johnson leans against the banister, staring down at the visitors. “This floor isn’t open to the public, so you just come up here like you’re on the bridge of a ship,” he says.

A few hours earlier, I’d been one of those people streaming into the building. After pausing at the elephant that dominates the atrium I’d turned left, into the Hall of Mammals. This hall is organized by continent, starting with Africa, where a lion on a pedestal looks proudly to the sky, with hints of The Lion King. Below the lion, two lionesses attempt to take down a water buffalo. On a nearby tree, a leopard lounges next to a freshly killed gazelle draped over a branch. “You know what? It’s kill or be killed,” a woman says to her friend.

Upstairs, in the Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, is one of the pièces de résistance: the Hope Diamond. While it is not, as one man exclaimed to his daughter, “the biggest diamond in the world!,” it is enormous, deep blue and impossibly flawless. Nearby, a college-aged man poses for a picture next to a 10,363-carat aquamarine.

I don’t get to visit the Fossil Hall, which is walled off for its conversion to the new “Deep Time” exhibit featuring the T. rex. “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. The stated mission of his museum is to understand the natural world and our place in it. “It’s almost like that mission is written,” Johnson says, “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, or imagining the life of a lion, can change the trajectory of a young person’s life, possibly leaving him or her in perpetual awe of the natural world.

In the collections, 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.”