Down to Earth With: Kirk Johnson

by Terri Cook
Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In 1967, at a family picnic in Casper, Wyo., 6-year-old Kirk Johnson stumbled across a fossil that looked to him like an ancient rattlesnake tail (it turned out to be a brachiopod). Not long after, while hiking in his home state of Washington, he accidentally knocked over a piece of shale, fortuitously discovering a fossil leaf. The ensuing epiphany that he had a knack for finding fossil treasures led to what he now calls his “paleo obsession.”

By now, several decades later, Johnson has visited more than 1,400 fossil localities and is best known for his research on fossilized plants, which offers some of the most convincing support for the theory that an asteroid impact led to the demise of dinosaurs. After serving for six years as vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Johnson was named director of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in July 2012.

He recently spoke with EARTH contributor Terri Cook about why he became a paleontologist, the future of museums, and why he once cut down a maple tree to count its leaves.

TC: How did you decide to become a paleontologist?

KJ: After I became obsessed with finding fossils, my mother contacted Wes Wehr, the curator at the Burke Museum in Seattle [in the 1970s]. I started hanging out with him, helping move fossils around in the museum’s collections. Wehr wrote to many famous scientists to collect their autographs. He soon had me writing to scientists too, so before I was even out of high school I had a bunch of professional paleontology contacts. After that, I had a long series of amazing mentors in college, graduate school, and at various jobs who were all really good scientists.

TC: What was your major in college?

KJ: Both geology and fine arts, which I find are quite similar; they both deal with creativity and uncertainty. By the time I was at Amherst [College in Amherst, Mass.], I’d already found fossils in eight states, so [studying] geology made a lot of sense, and both my mother and Wehr were artists. So I studied both, and as a result, I’ve always collaborated with artists. Paleontology and geology really need images because the Earth is often obscure. A museum is where these two things live together.

TC: What drew you to paleobotany?

KJ: My family was interested in plants, but my fascination with them didn’t develop until college, when I wandered around New England forests recognizing tree species because I had seen them before — as fossils. Plants are pretty amazing, but most people ignore them. We had that issue at the Denver Museum. People would look at our dioramas, and if they didn’t see any animals, they’d think they were empty and walk past. There’s something called plant blindness that the Botanical Society of America worries about. People literally don’t see plants. Being animals, people are focused on animals. But plants are much more indicative of the environment; animals are transients. When I was doing my dissertation on the Cretaceous-Tertiary [Paleogene] boundary, it became clear that to learn about what happened to the dinosaurs, it was necessary to look at what happened to the plants.

TC: How does the Smithsonian differ from other natural history museums?

KJ: This is a unique American entity built with money donated by a British scientist, James Smithson. It is free and open to the public. It has an amazing, bulletproof brand; everyone in this country is really proud of it. It’s run by a Board of Regents, which includes the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the U.S. Vice President, three members of the House of Representatives, three senators, and nine citizens. Plus, it’s really big. The Natural History Museum is only one of 29 units of the Smithsonian.

TC: In what direction do you hope to steer the museum?

KJ: This museum has 7.5 million annual visitors, more than any other natural history museum in the world. It also has the greatest number of scientists in a museum — more than 200 — and the largest collection with 129 million objects. It has a three-part mission: We are doing basic research, we are preserving these collections for the public good, and we are communicating to a huge public audience.

The central challenge is to find ways to make the research and collections more visible to the public, because if people don’t know about them, they don’t value them. We also need to develop better ways of talking about collections; we tend to use inappropriate metaphors like “the nation’s attic.” This is a vault, not an attic. It’s where the really important objects for our culture are kept, not the crappy clothes from last year! Museums are one of the few places where the public is very close to scientists, so that is an important opportunity to seize.

TC: How do you wrap your brain around 129 million items?

KJ: You break it into chunks. It’s hard to imagine the millions of species on the planet, but that’s only a few thousand families. One of our ongoing projects here is called the Encyclopedia of Life, which is a website where we are attempting to put an image of every one of the 1.9 million named species on the planet. I want to find a way to visualize that — a tree of life with 1.9 million images! I once cut down a 15-meter-tall red maple to groundtruth the number of leaves. It was about [30 centimeters] in diameter and had 99,284 leaves on it. A really big tree could have more than a million leaves, so if you imaged it and counted each leaf as a species, you’d have a good metaphor for the planet’s known diversity.

TC: What is your first major project at the Smithsonian?

KJ: We’re going to renovate the Hall of Prehistoric Life, the national exhibit about prehistory and its relevance to the future. We have to clear all the skeletons out, totally renovate the building, and then design and install the exhibits. It will probably take seven years, and by that time, we may even be able to create an exhibit with holograms that can digitally morph from a Jurassic to a Cretaceous landscape. It should last through 2050, when the world will be a very different place.

TC: How will you engage children who visit the museum?

KJ: People come to museums voluntarily as a social event that they believe has additional value. It’s not education; it’s learning. There is something very different that happens in a museum than happens at school. It’s like an inoculation rather than food. Education is food; you eat it every day to be nourished. Museums are the shots; once a year you get a shot so you don’t catch the flu. We inoculate kids with curiosity.

TC: How do you think that museums will remain viable?

KJ: Many venerable institutions, like newspapers, are becoming obsolete because of technology. The world is homogenizing and digitizing, so it’s getting harder and harder to have authentic, unique experiences. Museums are getting more valuable as a result because at the end of the day, if you want to see a dinosaur, you need to go to a museum. As long as museums take care to manage themselves well, I think they will do fine because they have tremendous cultural value.

© 2008-2021. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the expressed written permission of the American Geosciences Institute is expressly prohibited. Click here for all copyright requests.