headshot of Johnson
Museum Director

Kirk Johnson

Sant Director, National Museum of Natural History

Kirk Johnson is the Sant Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He oversees more than 440 employees and a collection of more than 145 million objects—the largest natural history collection in the world. The museum hosts more than 7 million visitors annually and, in 2017, its scientists published over 760 scientific research papers and described 275 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 scientific articles, popular books, museum exhibitions, documentaries, presentations and collaborations with artists to reconstruct ancient ecosystems. In 2010–11, he led the Snowmastodon Project, the excavation of an amazing ice age site near Snowmass Village, Colo. This dig recovered more than 5,400 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. Johnson received a 2016 Kavli Science Journalism Award for his role as host of the three-part NOVA series Making North America, which aired on PBS networks in November 2015. Johnson most recently hosted The Great Yellowstone Thaw, which premiered on PBS in June 2017. His latest book, Ancient Wyoming, explores the prehistory and 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 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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SI-150-2018