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Paleontologist has stories you can dig

Patrick Garrity

Smithsonian director Dr. Kirk Johnson wins over Assembly Hall with stories of his work.

April 13, 2018

Dr. Kirk Johnson has dinosaur slides, will travel. 

As director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Johnson oversees more than 440 employees and a collection of more than 145 million objects — the largest collection in the world. The museum hosts more than 7 million visitors annually and, in 2017, its scientists published over 977 scientific research papers and described 290 new species.

But sometimes, he just likes to show off photos of fossils. 

“I am basically a large kid,” Johnson declared. 

And so on Friday, Exeter had the good fortune of watching a presentation from a paleontologist who has led expeditions in 11 countries and 19 states that have resulted in the discovery of more than 1,400 fossil sites. 

“One thing I’ve noticed when I talk to people my age: When they do one thing for a long time, it gets boring. I don’t do boring.”

“When I was about 10, I met this guy who told me about this beach in Washington where if you went there and you knew which rocks to look for, you could find amazing things,” Johnson said, his slideshow taking the audience to the Pacific Coast. 

“He said ‘Look for the very round rocks, then crack them open with a sledgehammer.’ So, I found a round rock and cracked it open, and inside was a fossil crab,” Johnson said as the next slide revealed his prehistoric treasure. Assembly Hall buzzed at the perfectly preserved crab. 

For the next 20 minutes, Johnson delighted the audience with slides of 4-foot-long mastodon femurs and anecdotes about turning over stones in Alaska to discover palm frond fossils and sweet-talking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into sharing one of their Tyrannosaurus rexes. They had two, after all. 

“One thing I’ve noticed when I talk to people my age: When they do one thing for a long time, it gets boring," he said. "I don’t do boring.”

Johnson closed by telling students about the Smithsonian’s most ambitious exhibit ever, currently in the making: A 31,000-foot display about the history of life on earth from the beginning of time to well into the future. Kirk Johnson’s Smithsonian is a living record of natural history.

Kirk Johnson, director, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History from Phillips Exeter Academy on Vimeo.

“The next hundred years is surely the most important century in all of human history. And what happens in the next hundred years, whether its geo-politics or global warming or amazing technological advances, the good, the bad and the ugly, it’s going to be the century for humanity. And I want museums to be a part of that story, to lead that story,” he said.

“What we know about the past is surprisingly relevant to the future.”

The assembly crowd rose to its feet, sending the paleontologist on his way with a standing ovation. 

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