DMNS head curator Kirk Johnson is headed for the Smithsonian

Kirk Johnson, a paleontologist and fossil hunter who made science and history fun for the masses at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for the past 22 years, has landed a job with the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Johnson, the head curator and vice president of research and collections at the DMNS, will become the director of the Smithsonian's marquee attraction.

The news means Denver will lose its jovial, down-to-earth face of science, but the Smithsonian will gain an expert who led the 2010 dig in Snowmass that uncovered thousands of prehistoric bones, includes those of mammoths and mastodons.

Johnson started at the museum in 1991 as a paleontologist and has helped the DMNS transition into the modern world as a member of the administration since 2004. He is the author of the popular Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-Mile Paleo Road Trip.

"I have pretty much grown up here," says Johnson, who got the paleontology job at age thirty and has "been in the field constantly since then," at 1,400 different fossil locations.

Over that time, he's studied everything from an ancient rain forest in what is now Castle Rock to 50 million-year-old fossil beds in Patagonia to walruses in Alaska (a topic he recently covered at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Mixed Taste series).

His new job will still require a lot of travel, but more for "raising funds, putting partnerships together and spreading the word" about the Smithsonian," he says. "I will be doing less of the pure paleontological exploration than I have been doing."

He is proud of what the DMNS has become over the past decade, however. "It is the fourth largest natural history museum in the 25th largest city. People take it for granted, but it is really a treasure," he says, adding that several new projects, collections and exhibits will be opening over the next eighteen months. "We are large enough to be impactful and small enough to be nimble..and I'll come into the Smithsonian with a really good sense of what a well-run, integrated museum looks like."

Johnson will stay with the DMNS museum through the summer, taking over at the National Museum in October. Here is the letter he wrote to DMNS staff and volunteers:

It is with truly mixed emotions that I have accepted the opportunity to lead the National Museum of Natural History. While this new opportunity is unbelievably exciting, leaving the Denver Museum of Nature & Science is something I thought I would never do.

For the last 22 years, I have been extremely fortunate to work with our board, staff, volunteers, and partners. Together, they have made this Museum a creative, relevant and exciting place where millions of visitors engage with science and the natural world.

I knew something about fossil leaves when I got here in 1991, but my education was just beginning. I've learned so many things about the museum world from all of you and I am profoundly grateful for your knowledge and friendship.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes