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)

Journal Article
  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Bonnell, Mary Ann. 2021. Trees Are Made of Gas: The Story of Carbon and Climate. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press.
  • Carrano, Matthew T. and Johnson, Kirk R. 2019. Visions of lost worlds: the paleoart of Jay Matternes. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.
  • 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.
  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Clyde, Will. 2016. Ancient Wyoming: A Dozen Lost Worlds Based on the Geology of the Bighorn Basin. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
  • Johnson, Kirk R., Armstrong, Betsy R., Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip, Kruger, F., Haglund, K. A., and Krell, F. T., editors. 2013. Denver's Natural History Museum: A History. Denver, Colorado: Denver Museum of Nature & Science. In Denver Museum of Nature & Science Annals, 4.
  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Miller, Ian. 2012. Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies. Aspen: People's Press.
  • Ellis, B., Daly, D. C., Hickey, Leo J., Johnson, Kirk R., Mitchell, J. D., Wilf, Peter, and Wing, Scott L. 2009. Manual of Leaf Architecture. Cornell University Press.
  • Nichols, Douglas J. and Johnson, Kirk R. 2008. Plants and the K-T Boundary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Bonnell, Mary Ann. 2007. Gas Trees and Car Turds: Kid's guide to the roots of global warming. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.
  • Labandeira, Conrad C., Wilf, Peter, Johnson, Kirk R., and Marsh, F. 2007. Guide to Insect (and Other) Damage Types on Compressed Plant Fossils (version 3.0). Smithsonian Institution.
  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Raynolds, Robert G. H. 2006. Ancient Denvers : scenes from the past 300 million years of the Colorado Front Range. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Stucky, Richard Keith. 2006. Prehistoric Journey: A History of Life on Earth. 2nd ed. Golden: Fulcrum.
  • Evanoff, Emmett, Gregory-Wodzicki, Kathryn M., and Johnson, Kirk R., editors. 2001. Fossil flora and stratigraphy of the Florissant Formation, Colorado. Denver, CO: Denver Museum of Nature and Science. In Proceedings of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 4, no. 1.
  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Stucky, Richard Keith. 1995. Prehistoric journey : a history of life on earth. Denver: Denver Museum of Natural History.
  • Johnson, Kirk R., Hickey, Leo J., and Hoover, Cynthia, editors. 1991. Crossroads of continents : the material culture of Siberia and Alaska. Washington, D.C; New Haven, CT.: Smithsonian Seminar on Material Culture.
Book Review
Book Chapter
  • Johnson, Kirk R. and Troll, Ray. 2007. "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway Map: the Ultimate Prehistoric Road Map to the Best of the American West." Golden: Fulcrum.