Denver Paleobotanist to Head U.S. National Museum of Natural History

East Coast transplant. Colorado fossil hunter Kirk Johnson will be the new head of the Smithsonian natural history museum in Washington, D.C.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History has announced that Kirk Johnson will be its new director starting 29 October. Johnson is vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He studies Great Plains and Rocky Mountain fossil plants dating from 145 million to 34 million years ago and is an expert on the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary extinction event. He will replace Cristián Samper, who will be taking over the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered in New York City in August.

Johnson is an "excellent choice to continue a lot the initiatives that [Samper] has put in place over the last 9 years," says Smithsonian Natural History Museum ichthyologist Richard Vari, who was on the search committee for the new director. In a press release, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough called Johnson "a perfect match," for the directorship of the Washington, D.C., museum.

The move will be a step up for Johnson, who as chief curator in the Denver museum oversaw at $3.5 million budget and a 70-person staff. In Washington, Johnson will be managing more than 460 employees and more than 126 million artifacts. The Washington, D.C., museum's annual federal budget is $68 million and it hosts an average of 7 million visitors a year. Johnson "brings the skill set that would allow him to scale up with reasonable speed," says Vari.

Johnson has plenty of experience communicating science to the public. In 2010, he coordinated the Snowmastodon Project, a 70-day excavation in Colorado that involved 250 people and netted 5000 fossils. Public outreach—school visits, Webcasts, even a TV show—was a big part of the project. And he says he looks forward most to getting the natural history museum's 7 million visitors a year more excited about science. "The museum is an urban touchpoint to the natural world," he says. "Already it has an amazing worldwide reputation, but the potential to grow that is huge."

Until Johnson's arrival, Jonathan Coddington, associate director for research and collections at the natural history museum, will be in charge.