headshot of Johnson
Museum Director

Kirk Johnson

Director, National Museum of Natural History

Dr. Kirk Johnson is the Sant Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He oversees more than 460 employees and a collection of more than 128 million objects—the largest natural history collection in the world. The museum hosts more than 7 million visitors annually and last year, its scientists published more than 730 scientific research papers and described 517 new species.

Johnson is a paleontologist who has led expeditions in 11 countries and 19 states that resulted in the discovery of more than 1,400 fossil sites. His research focuses on fossil plants and the extinction of the dinosaurs. He is known for his authorship of both scientific and popular books and articles, as well as museum exhibitions, presentations and collaborations with artists. From 2010 to 2011, he led the Snowmastodon Project, the excavation of an ice age site near Snowmass Village, Colorado. This dig recovered more than 5,400 fossilized bones of mammoths, mastodons and other ice-age animals and was featured in the NOVA documentary, Ice Age Death Trap, and in Johnson’s book, Digging Snowmastodon, Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies. Most recently, Johnson hosted the three-part NOVA series, Making North America, which aired on PBS in November 2015, and published Ancient Wyoming: A Dozen Lost Worlds Based on the Geology of the Bighorn Basin.

Before coming to the Smithsonian, Johnson was vice president and chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where he established the museum’s first comprehensive, long-term research and collections plan. Johnson holds numerous professional memberships and in November 2013, was appointed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee. He is a member of National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration and an elected Fellow of the Paleontological Society.

Johnson is originally from Bellevue, Wash., and has a bachelor’s degree in geology and fine art from Amherst College, a master’s degree in geology and paleobotany from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in geology and paleobotany from Yale University. He completed postdoctoral research at the University of South Australia and served as a Crosby lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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