Excellence in Action

Alexandra Harris ’98, M.A. ’01

Photo of Alexandra Harris

Alexandra Harris ’98, M.A. ’01, is a senior editor at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), where she writes and edits exhibitions, their companion books, and other scholarly publications. She is a graduate of the Smithsonian’s Emerging Leaders Development Program and her editorial projects have earned awards for excellence in research from the Secretary of the Smithsonian. She edited and developed the exhibition catalog For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw, chosen by the New York Times for their 2014 holiday gift guide, and the accompanying exhibition of the same title, to which the Times and others granted glowing reviews. Recently, as a leader of the NMAI’s strategic planning team, she wrote, produced, and organized staff involvement in the museum’s five-year plan. She is currently co-authoring Why We Serve (forthcoming in 2020), a history of Native American participation in the U.S. military. Prior to her work at the Smithsonian, she was a curator at the Barona Cultural Center and Museum, the tribal museum of the Barona Band of Mission Indians, and taught college courses on American Indian and California Indian culture and history. She graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Psychology and M.A. in American Indian Studies.

Interviewed by Monique Beals • February 21, 2019

Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.

After leaving UCLA in 2001, I returned to San Diego to become the assistant curator at the Barona Cultural Center and Museum, the tribal museum of the Barona Band of Mission Indians. At the same time, I taught American Indian Studies courses, primarily at Palomar College. Within a few years, I became a curator at the museum. At a small museum with only a few staff members, you have to take on many roles. I gained a lot of experience as a project manager, photographer, researcher, and editor while designing and producing exhibitions, editing the museum’s publication, and also acting as the museum’s liaison to tribal businesses like the casino or the fire department, and occasionally to external organizations as well.

In 2008, I accepted a position as an editor and writer in the publications office at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and moved to Washington, DC. I have since become a senior editor in the office. Our work involves much more than copy editing, but research, leadership, and I think most importantly diplomacy. As both an editor and writer, I have had the privilege to work on exhibitions and scholarly publications as well as support the museum’s efforts in education, branding, and strategic planning.

What inspired you to choose this career path?

I didn’t deliberately look to work at a museum, but museums ultimately marry my interests in culture, history, art, books, and education. I’m constantly inspired by my museum colleagues around the nation. Museums can push the boundaries of art, history, social justice, and civic engagement. Finding your own career path in this industry can be really daunting. It is a small world with few positions, so it is essential to imagine your own goals and be bold in seeking them. Museums have the ability to create immersive and transformative experiences for visitors like very few other physical spaces and that really attracted me to the field.

How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?

In a variety of ways, UCLA gave me the tools to manage the daily life of my career. Most directly, I’ve drawn the basis of my network and expertise from my graduate work in American Indian Studies. I always say that I may have been hired for my historical and cultural knowledge, but I use my psychology degree every day. From negotiating edits to managing teams, the analytical experience that I gained during my studies makes me a better leader. My instrumental and choral music experiences at UCLA were and still are my therapy. If there is a moment that shaped my career, it was when I was a grad student and a professor asked me to be a photo editor on his publication. This human aspect of photography—meeting Native American journalists and photographers and hearing about the work they do in their communities—led me on an unintended path towards art, representation, and books.

In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?

I reach out to my fellow American Indian Studies alumni most often, and many of us share news and accomplishments over social media. We were a small class and have gone on to do work in different disciplines but are all working towards similar goals. Often I meet museum colleagues who are also Bruins or who have children who are leaving to go to UCLA, and I feel like being a Bruin fosters new and deeper connections even within my industry. I also have long-standing friendships that I made at UCLA that I truly value.

What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?

As an introvert, I admit that creating a professional network has been challenging to establish and maintain, but it plays a significant role in my job satisfaction and success. I challenge myself to not only join professional associations but to also be involved. I have sought or accepted invitations to small receptions where I have been able to have conversations with leaders in my field. Within my museum and in the field, I joined committees and applied for leadership opportunities. Specifically, my experience in the Smithsonian’s Emerging Leaders Development Program remains an indelible experience and a high point of my career with the most enduring network of connections. The side effect of these connections, of course, is more knowledge gained. For example, when I was asked to become an expert in strategic planning for my own museum, I reached out to leaders in my network and listened to their advice and experiences. It directly informed how we approached strategic planning at the National Museum of the American Indian.

What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in this field?

Museums are fundamentally nonprofits so a career in the field is one of passion and creativity. Having both business acumen and the flexibility to evolve along your career path will benefit you in the long run. Museums have often been criticized as monuments to colonialism and for a lack of diversity in the workforce, yet the industry is changing. As creative civic spaces, museums can uphold values of equity, diversity, and inclusion while still displaying their unique treasures in the context of culture and history. Museums by necessity need innovators who can navigate the needs of today’s society. Explore the museum field in Los Angeles via the UCLA network! There is so much opportunity in Los Angeles and a variety of new institutions. Students could gain exposure to all the different ways that they can be involved in museums.

How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?

The way I participate from 3000 miles away and as a new parent looks very different than when I was fresh out of college and able to attend UCLA events in San Diego. Today, I keep in touch with the local DC alumni group and follow news from the college and the American Indian Studies Center. It is exciting that there is a network in DC; when I moved here, I was able to contact them for advice about where might be a good place to live and other topics. When you are moving so far away, it is helpful to have a trustworthy source of information.

What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?

I am most proud to be associated with such a highly respected public university that is always at the forefront of research in such a variety of fields, but at the same time is accomplished in both arts and sciences. UCLA gave me the opportunity to explore and the gift of colleagues and friendships that have endured for decades.

And finally, what’s next?

Every milestone gives you the chance to assess where you want to be. I am currently co-authoring a book on the history of Native American participation in the US military since colonial times, tentatively titled Why We Serve, to commemorate the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which will open in Fall of 2020 on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian. Beyond that, opportunity awaits! I will look forward to new ways I can contribute to innovation and leadership in our evolving museum field.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.

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