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Amy Harris


Family Reading and Science Program

4502 Ruthven Museums Building
1109 Geddes Avenue
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109
Amy Harris, director of the University of the Michigan Museum of Natural History in Ann Arbor, understands the importance of learning outside the classroom and how it affects the young people who discover what a museum has to offer. With a passion to expand minds through museum-sponsored experiences, Harris lures children to the wonders of natural history with exciting exhibits and innovative programming.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
University of Michigan Museum of Natural History Director Amy Harris: It requires 360 degrees of awareness and action to be a leader. It requires listening and watching for trends and opportunities that others may not see and being able to synthesize and tweak them as needed to help form the big picture. Being a leader is all about communication, both internally and externally. To me, that kind of communication means trusting my staff to be the experts that they are and to provide the resources that they need to do their jobs.
I find my leadership job to be extremely creative. That is what I love the most about it. Museums can have a big impact on people’s lives. People learn in different ways, and we respect that by providing a variety of ways for people to learn. Museums are social places and special places for people to come with families, friends and other visitors.
Those experiences can be very memorable. That has is always inspiring for me. Also, when I hear my staff members laughing together, it makes me feel like I am creating a good context for teamwork. It makes me feel like a successful leader.
Museums can have a big impact on people's lives. People learn in different ways, and we respect that by providing a variety of ways for people to learn.

What is your dream for kids?
I am inspired by the Native American concept of planning and making decisions for the seven generations ahead of us, so I would like to see a much bigger investment in children’s education.
Because I take the long view, I would like to see their environmental and health issues better addressed, too. Thinking that far into the future for kids is not something that we, as a society, currently tend to do, but we really need to. Children really are our future, and I am very concerned about the future.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
I think that the one thing that would help the most would be a change of mindset. We, as a society, need to realize that everything is connected; we need to see that helping others benefits our entire community, including our own families. There is a tendency today for people to be very self-interested and for people to think in terms of, “What’s in it for me?” We need to turn this around, because by helping other people, we create a healthy context for society. We all need to get involved, in any way we can.
I just had the chance to visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas – it’s a museum that is entirely devoted to President John F. Kennedy’s life and, and sadly, of his assassination. It reminded me of the famous words he spoke at his inauguration and I know this sounds like a cliché, but they still inspire me: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
How do you know you are making progress?
Our attendance is way up. We had 130,000 visitors last year. So far this year, our monthly attendance has jumped by about three percent. That’s because of efforts across the board. We have been doing a better job at getting the word out about our exhibits and our existing programs, such as the Family Reading and Science Program workshop series and new ones that we continue to add.
It’s a constant, steady effort to build the constituency of people who receive our information, but the number of fans on our Facebook page just keeps growing, and so does our email list. That makes it a lot easier to let people know about our exhibits, our programs, and our events.
What are you most proud of?
I have limited human resources and limited financial resources, but I am proud that we have been able to leverage them to function at a high level through strategic choices and successful partnerships -- among them are the sponsors who help
We, as a society, need to realize that everything is connected; we need to see that helping others benefits our entire community, including our own families.
make our exhibits possible to display and the scholarships they offer to support school visits to the exhibits.
Another major way that we do this is by maximizing our annual museum theme. We take these themes and run with them to plan exhibits, programs and events, like poetry readings, films and performances, related to the themes. We are always looking for new ways use themes to form even more partnerships -- libraries, for example. Our Family Reading and Science Program workshops take place in public libraries all over this part of the state.
Right now, we have the traveling exhibit, “Race: Are we so different?” So, we have a lot going on about race. Last year’s them was the science of health and the year before that, it was the importance of water – to our bodies and our world. It has been a great way to innovate programming.
Reflecting on your career, what would you say was your greatest professional learning experience?
It was moving from being a staff member to taking on a leadership position. When I began working here in 1996, I served as the museum’s development officer and then as its associate director before I became the director in 2002.
I have so much respect and sympathy for leaders now in ways that I never had before I became one. I realize, now, how very easy it is to criticize when you don’t know the whole picture, but that criticism can be unfounded. Leaders often have constraints and are dealing with complexities that their employees do not know about. I know now that most leaders are doing the very best they can.
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Program Profile


  • University of Michigan Museum of Natural History
    The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History promotes understanding and appreciation of the natural world and of our places in it. It creates exhibits and programs that inspire diverse audiences to engage in exploration of scientific research ...


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