Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Kirk Johnson

Sant Director

Dr. Kirk Johnson is the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where he oversees the world’s largest natural history collection. The Museum hosts nearly 5 million visitors each year. In 2018, its scientists published 586 scientific research papers and named 310 new species. In 2019, the museum opened The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils-Deep Time, an exhibition that interprets the history of life on Earth and its relevance to the future of humanity.

Before his arrival at the Smithsonian in 2012, Kirk was a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science where led expeditions in 18 states and 11 countries. His research focuses on fossil plants and the extinction of the dinosaurs. In 2011, he led an ice age excavation near Snowmass Village in Colorado that recovered parts of more than fifty mastodon skeletons. He is known for his scientific articles, popular books, museum exhibitions, documentaries, and collaborations with artists.

His recent documentaries include Making North America and The Great Yellowstone Thaw, both of which aired on PBS channels. He is the host of NOVA's Polar Extremes, a documentary about the ancient climate of the Arctic and Antarctic, which premieres on February 5, 2020. His latest book, Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline, The Travels of an Artist and a Scientist along the Shores of the Prehistoric Pacific explores the deep history of the West Coast from California to Alaska.

Kirk is originally from Bellevue, Washington, has a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College, a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in geology and paleobotany from Yale University.

Additional Resources

Dinosaurs Come Back To Life At The Smithsonian” 1A (June 11, 2019)
The Dinosaurs Are Back!” The Kojo Nnamdi Show (June 10, 2019)
Inside the Smithsonian’s Newly Renovated Dinosaur Hall” The Today Show (May 30, 2019)
Museum Director Discovers His Mother’s Childhood Visit to the Smithsonian” Smithsonian Voices (May 11, 2019)
The Relevance of Deep Time Climate” C-SPAN - Johns Hopkins Climate Symposium (May 3, 2019)
The Future of Climate Change Is in the Past” (September 12, 2018)

  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Bonnell, Mary Ann. 2021. Trees Are Made of Gas: The Story of Carbon and Climate. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press.
  • Johnson, Kirk R. 2020. "Presentation of the 2019 Harrell L. Strimple Award of the Paleontological Society to James L. Goedert." Journal of Paleontology, 1015–1015. 94, (5), NEW YORK; 32 AVENUE OF THE AMERICAS, NEW YORK, NY 10013-2473 USA: CAMBRIDGE UNIV PRESS.
  • Carrano, Matthew T. and Johnson, Kirk R. 2019. Visions of lost worlds: the paleoart of Jay Matternes. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.
  • Erdei, Boglárka, Coiro, Mario, Miller, Ian, Johnson, Kirk R., Griffith, M. Patrick, and Murphy, Vickie. 2019. "First cycad seedling foliage from the fossil record and inferences for the Cenozoic evolution of cycads." Biology Letters, 15, (7), London: The Royal Society.
  • Fuentes, Anthony J., Clyde, William C., Weissenburger, Ken, Bercovici, Antoine, Lyson, Tyler R., Miller, Ian M., Ramezani, Jahandar, Isakson, Vincent, Schmitz, Mark D., and Johnson, Kirk R. 2019. "Constructing a time scale of biotic recovery across the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, Corral Bluffs, Denver Basin, Colorado, U.S.A." Rocky Mountain Geology, 133–153. 54, (2),
  • Hagen, Eric R., Royer, Dana L., Moye, Ryan A., and Johnson, Kirk R. 2019. "No Large Bias within Species between the Reconstructed Areas of Complete and Fragmented Fossil Leaves." Palaios, 43–48. 34, (1), TULSA; 6128 EAST 38TH ST, STE 308, TULSA, OK 74135-5814 USA: SEPM-SOC SEDIMENTARY GEOLOGY.
  • Lyson, T. R., Miller, I. M., Bercovici, A. D., Weissenburger, K., Fuentes, A. J., Clyde, W. C., Hagadorn, J. W., Butrim, M. J., Johnson, K. R., Fleming, R. F., Barclay, R. S., Maccracken, S. A., Lloyd, B., Wilson, G. P., Krause, D. W., and Chester, S. G. B. 2019. "Exceptional continental record of biotic recovery after the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction." Science, 977–+. 366, (6468), WASHINGTON; 1200 NEW YORK AVE, NW, WASHINGTON, DC 20005 USA: AMER ASSOC ADVANCEMENT SCIENCE.
  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Troll, Ray. 2018. Cruisin' the fossil coastline: the travels of an artist and a scientist along the shores of the prehistoric Pacific. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
  • Kowalczyk, Jennifer B., Royer, Dana L., Miller, Ian M., Anderson, Clive W., Beerling, David J., Franks, Peter J., Grein, Michaela, Konrad, Wilfried, Roth-Nebelsick, Anita, Bowring, Samuel A., Johnson, Kirk R., and Ramezani, Jahandar. 2018. "Multiple Proxy Estimates of Atmospheric CO 2 From an Early Paleocene Rainforest." Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, 1427–1438. 33, (12),
  • Clyde, William C., Ramezani, Jahandar, Johnson, Kirk R., Bowring, Samuel A., and Jones, Matthew M. 2016. "Direct high-precision U–Pb geochronology of the end-Cretaceous extinction and calibration of Paleocene astronomical timescales." Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 272–280. 452,

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