Jill Beathard

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July 31, 2012
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Smithsonian taps lead scientist from Snowmastodon dig

SNOWMASS VILLAGE -Kirk Johnson, one of the lead paleontologists on the 2010-11 fossil dig at Ziegler Reservoir that uncovered more than 5,400 bones of ice age animals, has been appointed the next director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Johnson was named to the position on July 26, according to a statement from the Smithsonian Institution. He is currently the chief curator and vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and will take the helm at the Washington, D.C., museum on Oct. 29.The institution cited Johnson's research and experience at the Denver museum in its statement announcing his appointment. Richard Vari, chairman of vertebrate zoology at the Smithsonian and a member of the search committee that chose Johnson, said his passion for science education will apply at the Natural History Museum, which sees an average of 7 million visitors per year. "There's lots of factors that go into making recommendations," Vari said. "Kirk ... is incredibly enthusiastic about science and communicating the results of research to the public." Johnson said the Snowmass dig didn't hurt either. "I can't imagine that it didn't help to have Snowmass in the immediate past," Johnson said in an interview. Johnson said it's a good time for him to bow out of the work on the Ziegler fossil dig because the digging and preserving of specimens is mostly over, giving way to what Johnson calls the "science phase" of using the evidence gathered for a variety of research. "One thing is that the major microphone for Snowmass just got a national forum," he also said. Johnson will oversee more than 460 employees, an annual federal budget of $68 million and a collection of more than 126 million specimens and artifacts - the largest collection at the Smithsonian, according to the institution. The Smithsonian also announced in May that it would be constructing a new dinosaur hall in the natural history museum, estimated to cost $45 million. "Denver's going to be working in parallel ... with their redevelopment," Johnson said. "I'm sure Snowmass is in Denver's future."Vari also said the museum will soon open an education center showcasing the scientific work behind exhibits."Kirk will be ideal to continue these initiatives," he said. Johnson will be working in more of a strategic capacity than a research-oriented one at the Smithsonian, he said, similarly to what he was doing in Denver. "This Snowmass thing came up, and I decided to take a break and be a full-time digger," he said. "It was a lovely interruption, I gotta say."The dig at Ziegler Reservoir played out in local newspapers and the Internet, and area schoolchildren were able to view some of the fossils. That's something Johnson says doesn't usually happen with a fossil find. Usually scientists release their findings months later, and the public isn't as interested. "One of the things we learned really well at Snowmass was how to tie a dig together with education and with media. A smart museum is going to take advantage of future fossil digs to really communicate (in real-time and social media)," Johnson said. "I think a lot of museums saw that and said how can they do that with their exhibitions. ... That's something I'll take to the national stage." Johnson said the scientific publication on the Snowmastodon dig is at least a year away from completion. The bottom of Ziegler was covered and the reservoir was filled with water after the last dig, but Johnson said scientists might return for more. "I think it's very likely, but I'm not sure what the timeframe on that is," he said.jbeathard@snowmasssun.com

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The Aspen Times Updated Jul 31, 2012 07:47PM Published Jul 31, 2012 06:18PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.