Kirk Johnson named director of Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History

WASHINGTON (AP) - A paleontology expert who led a major excavation for ice age fossils of mammoths and mastodons in Colorado is being named the next director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

The Smithsonian named Kirk Johnson, chief curator and vice president of research at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, to the post Thursday. He takes over one of the nation's most visited museums in late October. Johnson joined the Denver museum in 1991.

It draws about 1.4 million visitors a year. In 2010 and 2011, Johnson led an excavation near Snowmass Village, Colo., that uncovered thousands of bones of prehistoric life.

The Smithsonian plans to build a new dinosaur hall on the National Mall. Johnson follows Cristian Samper, who led the museum since 2003.