A Passion for Discovery: Digging Up the Past
Issue   |   Fri, 10/18/2013 - 00:18
Photo Courtesy of Kirk Johnson
Johnson is the recently-appointed Sant Director of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.

For many Americans, trips to the local museums constitute fond childhood memories. The well-organized exhibits, the seemingly endless array of artifacts, specimens or original artwork and the pursuit of new knowledge all combine to create unforgettable, treasured experiences for many. For Kirk Johnson ’82, a love of museums endowed him early on with a sense of the trajectory he wanted his life to follow. He soon realized, upon coming to Amherst College, that his appreciation of the natural history exhibits of his youth and his love of collecting could both be used to shape the career path that he would so successfully navigate after graduation. Now a successful paleontologist and the recently-appointed Sant Director of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, Johnson continues to pursue with relentless passion the interests that initiated a professional life characterized by unremitting discovery.

Life at Amherst
Johnson grew up in Seattle, Wash., the son of a psychiatrist father and photographer mother. Growing up, he recalled spending numerous hours in the University of Washington’s museum and on the cold Washington beaches collecting fossils. An appreciation for geology and a love of art (inspired by an artist friend with whom Johnson would regularly hang out) persisted throughout his high school experience, which he described as being “really solid.” His solid high school experience and unquestionable success afforded him the opportunity to visit Brown Univ. and Amherst College as potential college choices.

When asked how he made the decision to attend Amherst, Johnson replied, “I hung out in the museum a lot. It’s called Beneski now, but the old natural history museum was actually up near the quad, in the southeast corner. It was such a cool museum. I got a chance to talk with one of the heads there and he said that if I came to Amherst he would give me a job at the museum. You make your decisions on simple things.”

While at Amherst, Johnson double majored in geology and fine art. He wrote a thesis after spending the summer before his senior year exploring coalmines in North Dakota; the topic was about a collection of 64-million year-old fossil plants that he had unearthed.

Upon being questioned about the title of his thesis, Johnson responded, “Oh my god, it’s been so long. I know it was something long and boring.”

He was well-involved in extracurricular activities, playing soccer and rugby until his sophomore year when he injured his knees.

“I couldn’t play anymore, so I started coaching rugby for Mount Holyoke. A friend and I actually started the rugby program over there and it’s still going on today,” Johnson said.

This experience with leadership proved crucial to Johnson’s later successes, and, in fact, he deemed leadership skills and the ability to organize among the most important things he learned in college.

“It was much more about learning how to be around people, how to organize. I learned a lot about being on teams, cooperation and leadership,” Johnson said. “Looking back, my college years are when I learned how to coordinate with groups of people and get things done.”

His experience at Amherst equipped Johnson with characterizing strengths that would prove indispensable after graduation.

Unforeseeable Opportunities
Admittedly, Johnson wasn’t sure about what he was going to do after graduation. Besides knowing that he “liked doing fossils and art and geology,” he “didn’t really have a clue.” Luckily for him, however, he received a job offer that very summer in 1982 and was off to Menlo Park, Calif. to begin work with the U.S. Geological Survey. Here was Johnson’s first chance to put to use the leadership skills he had acquired at Amherst to use in the context of an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a student so fresh out of college.

“The guy that hired me left before I got there. There was just left a note saying ‘I’m done, you have to do this job now.’ He left me with a budget and a task and it was an amazing thing because he basically just pitched to me this fabulous opportunity,” Johnson recalled. “I got to be the guy in charge right out of school. It was a totally lucky kind of thing.”
Johnson worked with the Geological Survey for nine months, until the summer of 1983, during which he had several memorable experiences, such as a scientific cruise to the Bering Sea, among many others. These expeditions would be the start of a career defined by incredible journeys to every last corner of the globe in search of fossils and other geologic specimens.

After receiving a somewhat unexpected phone call from a professor he was acquainted with at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, Johnson agreed, on the professor’s insistence, to attend graduate school and continue his studies there. Johnson spent a few years at the university and earned a master’s degree in paleobotany and geology before eventually deciding that Yale Univ. offered him a better program of study. He received a Ph.D in geology and geophysics from Yale in 1989.

Only two years later, Johnson joined the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where he would dedicatedly work for the next 22 years, moving up in the ranks to eventually become a vice president and the chief curator. During his time in Denver, which he calls “the fossil center of the American West,” Johnson estimates that he visited over 1400 different fossil sites during about 500 unique expeditions. These scientific excursions took place on every continent, and he fondly remembers visiting places such as Antarctica, the Sahara and Gobi deserts and Mongolia, to name a few.

On to Bigger Things
Johnson is currently the director of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, which sees about eight million visitors a year, houses over 126 million unique specimens and boasts an entire scientific staff of over five hundred individuals. Needless to say, Johnson’s responsibilities as the director of this massive scientific enterprise are endless. He has held the position for 11 months now and doesn’t seem to be slowing down; his sense of urgency instead seems more prominent than ever as the dynamic of the museum’s visitor base continues to change with the times.

His responsibilities include, but are not limited to, managing the museum’s budget, making executive decisions about what the museum will exhibit, helping to raise millions of dollars in yearly fundraising campaigns to support museum programs and acting as the museum’s public spokesperson.

About his relatively new position, Johnson said, “It’s very much a leadership and management kind of position. I help keep a vision of what the museum wants to do and why we do what we do and choose which exhibits and programs we do. It’s a complicated job but it’s totally fun and so interesting. There’s always something fascinating happening.”

Perhaps what is most poignant about Johnson’s work is his appreciation of the individuals who partake of everything the Natural History Museum has to offer.

When asked what his favorite part of his job was, Johnson responded, “It’s the diversity of people you interact with — all of my staff and all of the volunteers, Congressional people, board members and visitors. Every day it’s some amazing new person, whether a member of the board is visiting to assess how things are going or Michele Obama comes by to visit, it’s never the same thing. In eleven months I’ve met probably 2000 people.”

The federal government shutdown proved quite frustrating for Johnson, who lamented the incredible amounts of money “being wasted like mad” each day the Smithsonian stayed closed. It is an interesting point on the museum’s developmental timeline, but judging by his solid track record of demonstrated capability, passion for what he does and leadership abilities, Johnson will no doubt facilitate the Natural History Museum’s resilient return to normal operation.

Interestingly enough, Johnson didn’t concretely envision himself ending up in the specific field of work that he is in today. However, his early love of museums and natural history eventually landed him a career that arguably represents the fruition of his greatest passions in life.

“The fact that I’m running the museum now is kind of similar to what I thought I might end up doing, but I never would have thought that I would be the director of the national museum in a million years,” Johnson said. “I came to Amherst because I liked museums. There’s definitely some connections between those two things.”

A Life Fully Realized
Katie Fretwell ’81, Amherst College’s current Dean of Admission and devoted member of the College’s staff since 1989, is a good friend of Johnson’s and recalled fondly their time spent together at Amherst.

“He was a class behind me but we shared a number of classes together, usually in the geology department. I recall our preparing for a paleontology exam together, and reflective of Kirk’s current professional duties as an educator, he made our three-hour study prep a fun and interactive experience. His trademark passions for people, the natural world, art, rugby and any opportunity to share raucous laughter make ‘Mad Dog’ a truly special and unique friend,” Fretwell said.

Johnson has been married for nine years to a Hampshire alumna and likes to take his two-year-old niece and nephew on trips to the playground; amusingly enough, he called to be interviewed from a park in Manhattan as the two played within sight. He said that his primary hobby is actually his job, collecting fossils, and that he loves traveling to “wild places” and reading.

Johnson acknowledges Amherst College’s stayed presence throughout his life.

“I actually went back to the same place in North Dakota and did my Ph.D there. It all looped back,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those things where opportunity at Amherst looped back; it got me into Penn and got me to Alaska and got me into Yale.”
The doors that Amherst opened for Johnson were numerous and impressive and, undoubtedly, were responsible for the incredible success he has experienced.

He eagerly offered words of advice for current Amherst students. “Just do what you want to do. I think the thing is that it’s really clear that the world is changing much faster than when I was here, so just be nimble.”