Skip to content

PROFILE: Kirk Johnson GRD ’89, the museum child

Courtesy of Kirk Johnson

When he picked up the cellphone, Kirk Johnson GRD ’89 was in the midst of the Smithsonian Museum’s employees Halloween occasion. Naturally, he started the dialog with an in depth description of the completely different bugs his coworkers have been dressed up as.

The infants, apparently, have been carrying bee costumes.

Johnson, the Sant Director of the Smithsonian’s Nationwide Museum of Pure Historical past, is a recipient of a Wilbur Cross Medal, certainly one of 4 awarded yearly by the Graduate College of Arts and Sciences to excellent alumni. Johnson was acknowledged for “contributions on fossil analysis and dedication to public schooling and science applications.”

Even over the cellphone, Johnson’s love for the museum was clear as day, his voice strengthening as he described his job on the world’s largest advanced of collections.

“The rewarding factor is that I really feel day by day that I am doing a job that basically issues to individuals and to the long run,” Johnson stated.

Johnson is a scientist, paleontologist and museum administrator—and, when he has the time, a fossil-themed image e-book creator. I’ve graduated from Amherst School with a twin diploma in geology and effective arts. Afterward, he earned a grasp’s diploma from the College of Pennsylvania in geology and paleobotany earlier than receiving his Ph.D. at Yale in the identical two topics.

A self-described “museum-loving child,” Johnson has gravitated in direction of the establishments for so long as he can keep in mind. From 1991 to 2012, I’ve labored on the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Then, he was chosen to guide the Nationwide Museum of Pure Historical past in Washington, DC

Johnson’s day-to-day agenda can vary from board conferences to publishing scientific papers and to attending United Nations local weather change conferences in Egypt, Montreal and Madrid. Efforts to reply to the local weather disaster, Johnson stated, rely closely on the archival collections and analysis capabilities that museums possess.

His function on the UN’s Framework Conference on Local weather Change conferences is to assist policymakers and scientists acquire the data they want to consider altering the long run and to reveal the interlocking nature of the local weather and biodiversity crises.

“We’re type of the one place that preserves a file of the planet’s historical past,” Johnson defined. “To the extent that bio-organisms doc attributes of historic ecosystems, they actually doc historic climates.”

There are solely about 120 giant historical past museums on the earth; the 176-year-old Smithsonian looms giant amongst them. Thanks partially to conferences like those Johnson attends, museums are cooperating extra continuously and bringing collectively thinkers and sources to face the local weather and biodiversity crises.

Johnson believes that one of the crucial essential elements of museums is their accessibility.

“It is essential to know what the general public thinks and feels as a result of that is the place the change occurs,” Johnson stated. “Museums…have entry to a big public viewers. Most coverage makers do not.”

GSAS Dean Lynn Cooley described Johnson as “an distinctive science communicator” who has introduced “vital scholarly discourse into the general public realm … a shining instance of what might be carried out to enhance the world with a Yale Ph.D.”

On the function of museums as disseminators of knowledge, Johnson famous the psychological aspect of his job.

“Lots of people… are anxious; some are simply depressed,” he admitted. “I simply do not assume that pessimism solves issues. I feel that issues are solved by individuals who assume that options are potential.”

His targets could also be lofty — he introduced with gusto that if we will pull collectively our “collective will,” we will resolve local weather points “in a constructive manner” — however Johnson isn’t any stranger to entering into the thick of issues. The truth is, he’s a fan.

Requested to explain an anecdote from his time at Yale, Johnson casually dove into his model of a college-glory-days story.

Strolling via the woods of Connecticut, Johnson discovered himself curious as to the leaves he noticed littering the forest flooring. Did they characterize the forest’s make-up? What number of leaves would possibly a tree even have?

Johnson casually recounted how he calculated that there must be 102,000 leaves per tree on common. He grabbed an acquiescent pal, chopped a tree down in North Haven, and spent 18 hours testing his calculations on him.

“99,284 leaves,” Johnson recited just like the quantity has lived casually in his head for the final 30 years (it has). His predictions of him have been right inside a few three-percent margin of error.

Undoubtedly, Johnson is a little bit of a nerd — which one would hope for within the man in command of certainly one of America’s greatest nerd heavens. And as with all nerd, he has passions which may sound tedious to others.

The “longest interval of sustained pleasure” in his life, Johnson described, was a 70-day fossil dig in Snowmass Village, Colorado, in 2010. Over the interval, Johnson and his workforce discovered roughly 5 thousand bones from round 50 mastodons and mammoths .

“My real love is discovering unimaginable fossils,” I defined. “That is what makes paleontology so cool — each from time to time you discover one thing nobody’s ever seen earlier than.”

He nurtured his love of fossils whereas getting his Ph.D. He laid out his thesis undertaking, which he was set on upon his arrival in New Haven, in layman’s phrases as: “what occurred to the vegetation when the dinosaurs went extinct?”

Johnson gleefully recounted how his school advisor, then-Peabody Museum director Leo Hickey, was satisfied the asteroid which had killed the dinosaurs had little influence on flora on the planet. Johnson challenged his beliefs by analyzing fossilized earth in Montana and North Dakota.

“He wasn’t threatened by the truth that I would made this discovery; actually, I’ve embraced it,” Johnson recalled. “How uncommon is it to have people who find themselves consultants do a 180 and alter their thoughts?”

Johnson hinted that it was not simply Professor Hickey whom he shocked together with his discovery — he was being modest. Jia Chen GRD ’00, chair of the Graduate College Alumni Affiliation Board, defined that Johnson’s work “challenged typical knowledge and revealed essential elements of the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, one of the crucial essential occasions in Earth’s historical past.”

Johnson laughs when requested what recommendation he has for present Yalies.

“[Yale’s] such a smorgasbord of surprise,” he instructed. “I feel again about there and… the issues that I may’ve, ought to’ve, would’ve carried out.”

His recommendation might be summarized as such: meet attention-grabbing individuals, keep humble and observe your passions. Take the time to understand being right here — you haven’t any thought what a tremendous place it’s till lengthy after you might be gone.

However what, perchance, is the favourite exhibit of a person who has spent his complete profession in museums?

“A director’s not speculated to say they’ve favorites,” he stated conspiratorially. “Gone.”

The reply: the Smithsonian’s Bone Corridor. Johnson’s voice swelled as he described the cornucopia of skeletons he presides over.

“You stroll via it,” he famous in a closing anecdote that appears to use to the reverence he holds for museums as an entire, “[And] you understand how fantastic and peculiar and delightful the pure world actually is.”

Dr. Kirk Johnson was awarded the Wilbur Cross Medal on Dec. 6, 2021.


Miranda Wollen covers the Graduate College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering and Utilized Sciences for the Information; she additionally writes very foolish items for the WKND. She is a sophomore at Silliman School double majoring in American Research and Classics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *