Background Check: Smithsonian’s Kirk Johnson

August 20, 2013
Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post
Kirk Johnson peers between the jaws of the the Natural History Museum”s  T. Rex skeleton.  (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Meet the guy in charge of the nearly 127 million specimens and objects housed in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, including its most terrifying dinos — not to mention 460 employees and a $68 million federal budget.

Kirk Johnson, the museum’s director, isn’t your usual coat-and-tie Washingtonian. In fact, the paleontologist and former chief curator for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is happiest when he’s digging in the dirt in search of fossils. Add a lasso and a hat, and you’d get something like Indiana Jones.

He joined the Smithsonian a year ago — practically a nanosecond in his line of work — and now he’s talking to the Loop about his mastery of walrus trivia (go ahead, try to stump him) and his secret musical career.

What museum item or exhibit in Washington do you like best and why?

The pair of elephant-sized giant ground sloths that were collected in Panama in 1955 and are now on display at the National Museum of Natural History. If you have ever seen a living tree sloth, you would be completely surprised that they have such gargantuan extinct relatives. Paleontology is full of surprises.

Which Cabinet secretary would you most like to hang out with, and what would you do?

[Interior Secretary] Sally Jewell, and we would be excavating fossils on federal land (with a permit).

What’s your favorite non-work-related Web site/blog/app/magazine?

The New Yorker. Where else can you get such good writing (and cartoons) on so many different topics?

Fill in the blank: People would be surprised to know that I ___________.

… have recorded a song about why fossil plants matter called, “I am a Paleobotanist.” It’s part of an album called “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway,” which was inspired by my book of the same title. The book and the album document the travels of a paleontologist (me) and artist Ray Troll as we drove 5,000 miles across the American West is search of fossils and the people that love them. My most recent book, Digging Snowmastodon, Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies, tells the story of an incredible dig that yielded more than 6,000 fossil bones in only 69 days.

What’s your dream job?

The job I have now. Running the largest natural history museum and premier science interpretive space in the world.

What motivated you to go into public service?

A sense that we are at a unique time in human history and a belief that museums can positively affect how we tackle the future.

Favorite TV show?

“Friday Night Lights.” This was a surprise to me, since I used to play rugby and was never much of a football fan. But this show is such a great reminder of the connection between teams, character, coaching and leadership.

Which character from that show do you most identify with?

Coach Eric Taylor. His character is a great metaphor for what it takes to inspire people to be more together than any of them can be alone.

What subject, other than your work, do you know the most about?

Walrus. I once saw a herd of 10,000 walrus at a place called Round Island in Alaska, and I have been obsessed with them ever since. Here’s an animal with three-foot long teeth that eats nothing but clams and floats around on slabs of ice. I am a font of walrus trivia.

What’s the best job you ever had?

It’s hard to beat this one, but I sure loved being a longshoreman in Seattle when I was 20. We would start the morning with eight guys and a ship completely full of 80-pound boxes of frozen king crab. Eight hours of tossing boxes later, the ship’s hold was a huge empty space the size of a gymnasium. It was simple, physical labor, but it was really satisfying to see what we had accomplished in a day.

Fill in the blank: I’m scared of ___________.

… tiny confined spaces.

What’s one word you wish people would use to describe you?

Compelling. The museum world is all about creating inspiration and catalyzing curiosity. I want to personify that world and support my staff to make amazing discoveries and to share them with our audience.

You can draft one person in the private sector to come work for the federal government. Whom would it be, and what would you have them do?

Salman Khan of the Khan Academy. This guy basically invented the concept of online education, and it is clear that the Web has awesome potential for museums. I would love to see every kid in the country be a digital member of the nation’s museum.

Background Check is a Loop feature in which we grill various government types about their lives on and off the clock. Please send suggestions for future subjects to intheloop@washpost.com.

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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Emily Heil · August 19, 2013