How many of us can say that our first real job was somewhere so amazing and unique that we never left? Our new Memphis FACE certainly can! Fresh out of Bartlett High School, Gina Harris started teaching summer camps at the Memphis Botanic Garden in 1993. Nearly 30 years later, she’s still there. Now Director of Education and Events, Gina manages educational programming, entertainment events, and traveling exhibits in the 96-acre gem in the heart of East Memphis.
Jhis year, Memphis Botanic Garden hosts the magnificent Alice’s Adventures in the Garden. Based on the beloved children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the showstopper features larger-than-life greenery sculptures, Alice’s Garden, White Rabbits, Cheshire Cat Grins and more. Meet our new Memphis FACE, Memphis Botanic Garden’s, Gina Harris.
What attracted you to your first job at the Memphis Botanic Garden and why did you stay?
Getting paid to be outside, spending time with kids and teaching them about plants and nature was awesome! At my first summer camp, the groups I worked with were kids from downtown Memphis. It was a whole new experience for them. I loved introducing them to nature and seeing their eyes light up. It was hot and sweaty and hard work, but it was so much fun.
I stayed because I love what I do. I love being outdoors, teaching kids about nature, and doing something different every day. I am not a “routine” person. I could never sit in an office. And every day, the space itself is different! You never know what the garden will look like when you walk through the door.
Where has your career at MBG gone since that summer job?
During college, I worked part-time, hosting birthday parties, weekend classes, and summer camps. In 1996, one of the full-time employees of the education department left. Mary Helen Butler was Director of Education then – she is the true heart of the garden and built the Education Department. She asked me if I wanted the job, and of course I said “yes”.
I worked in the education department, but I also did room rentals and other jobs as needed. This is how the Garden is. We are like a big family, and everyone is involved. You do what you have to do; if that’s your job, great, and if it’s not, smile and do it anyway.
It was Jim Duncan, Executive Director, who promoted me from Education Program Manager to Director of Education. Mary Helen moved from Director of Education to Deputy Director. It made me tremble in my boots – looking at the legacy she had built and realizing that I would be responsible for ensuring that the department continued to succeed and grow. But Jim gave me great confidence and gave us the ability to make changes.
When you took office, what kinds of changes did you make?
My big garden was big. Mary Helen and I had been talking and dreaming about the concept for years, and Jim said we could make it happen. This completely changed the Garden; the designer we hired said no other botanical garden had anything like it.
Over the years, we have developed programs that appeal to children. We teach them, but we make them fun. The Memphis Botanical Garden now serves nearly 40,000 children a year. Today, for example, we have a busload of 200 school children who come to learn about the jungles, and we have school children who come for an Alice tea party.
How did traveling exhibitions become part of your work?
When he came on board, our current manager Mike Allen asked us to name the one thing we wanted to do that we hadn’t been able to do yet. Our answer was traveling exhibitions. Other gardens had it, and it was a “pie in the sky” dream for us. I felt like we were ready and the garden was about to take off. Mike gave us the opportunity to make it happen. Our first was the big bugs exposure. I saw it at the Denver Botanic Garden and loved it. Origami in the garden monitoring. We had another exhibition planned for 2020, but we all know what happened in 2020.
I had seen a Alice in Wonderland-exhibition on the theme of Alice in 2018. The Atlanta Botanical Garden had designed and developed the exhibition on the theme of Alice in collaboration with Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal. I called them and they were happy to work with us.
Can you give us an “overview” of what to expect for Alice’s Adventures in the Garden?
We will be the first garden outside of Atlanta to feature Alice’s pieces. You will see huge sculptures of Alice in the middle of the iris garden, the Cheshire cat in the sensory garden, a chess set near the tram stop and in the four seasons courtyard is the red queen . it measures 20 feet.
We push the theme through the whole garden. We reached out to artists on social media to design white rabbits, so there will be a rabbit hunt in our 96 acres. Most of the artists are local, but one is from Italy. She follows Memphis Botanic Garden on Instagram, saw the call for artists and contacted me! Each rabbit is an artist’s own interpretation of the White Rabbit in the story.
The garden of ideas is transformed into Alice’s garden. Children can paint the roses red, participate in an imaginary tea party, and descend down the rabbit hole in Wonderland, a fun little slide we built especially for this exhibit.
What do you wish more people knew about the Memphis Botanical Garden?
Lots of people come for a wedding reception or live at the garden, but I don’t think many people know all that we have to offer. The Garden is a safe place in the middle of the city to enjoy beauty, discovery and relaxation. We are truly a garden for everyone.
Where can we find you when you are not working?
I have four daughters, so I’m usually with my family! My eldest daughter runs on the track and you will often find me cheering her on. I’ve raced on track and she does the exact same events which makes it even more fun to watch. Another girl is a basketball player, so I’m often on the court. We also have a farm in Mississippi, so you can find me there when I’m relaxing.
What’s your best advice?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Everything will eventually work out.
Besides faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My training, my laughs and my music.
Visit our FACES archive to meet other inspiring women from Memphis.