A cultural historian, Neil Harris has written about American art, artists, and art collecting; the history of technology, architecture, and design; American entertainment; world's fairs; and the development of American museums, libraries, and learned societies. In addition to more than one hundred papers and reviews that have appeared in print since 1962, recent and forthcoming published essays treat American art collectors and patterns of British deaccessioning; period rooms and American art museums; American world’s fairs and the taste for Japonisme; and the growth of interest, in Chicago and elsewhere, in Art Deco. His books include The Artist in American Society: The Formative Years, 1790-1860; Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum; Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: The Transportation Revolution in Children's Picture Books; Building Lives. Constructing Rites and Passages; Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury; and The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age; Cultural Capital: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience; and, with his wife Teri Edelstein, En Guerre: French Illustrators and World War I, accompanying an exhibition at the University of Chicago Library.
Between 1978 and 1986 he served as a presidential appointee to the National Museum Services Board. In 1985 Harris was appointed Visiting Directeur d'Etudes, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris; in 1986 he was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Lecturer; in 1990-91 he was named a Getty Scholar; and in 1995-96 he served as Distinguished Scholar at the National Museum of American Art. He has held named lectureships at Yale, Princeton, John Hopkins, Columbia, and Stanford Universities, among others. In 1990 he received the Joseph Henry Medal of the Smithsonian Institution and since 1993 has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1999-2000 he held a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and a Getty Visiting Scholarship. In 2008 he received the Lawrence A. Fleischman Award from the Archives of American Art. In 2010 he received the Iris Foundation Award for contributions to the decorative arts, and a Mellon Emeritus Fellowship. He sat on the board of the Terra Foundation for American Art for six years, co-chaired the advisory committee for the J. Paul Getty Museum, and currently sits on the Board of Trustees for the Newberry Library, as a Life Member, and on the Architecture and Design Committee of the Art Institute of Chicago. He served previously as chairman of the American Council of Learned Societies and of the Smithsonian Council, as a senator for Phi Beta Kappa, and as a member of the boards of the Henry du Pont Winterthur Museum and the National Museum of American History. He has also consulted for a variety of institutions, from the Princeton University Art Museum, Reynolda House, the Library of Congress, the USS Intrepid Air and Space Museum, and "History Detectives", to the National Building Museum, the Mark Twain House, the Lincoln Park Zoo, and the P. T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Ct. Harris has sat on the editorial boards of the New England Quarterly, the Winterthur Portfolio, the American Quarterly, the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, and several other periodicals and projects.
Harris received his undergraduate degrees from Columbia University in 1958 and Cambridge University in 1960. His Ph.D. from Harvard followed in 1965. He joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1969, and taught there until 2008, when he retired as Preston and Sterling Morton Professor Emeritus in the departments of History and Art History and the Committee on Geographical Studies. He served as chair of the History Department from 1985-1988 and again 2000-2001. At Columbia, Cambridge, and Harvard, Harris received the Brainard Memorial Prize, the Elsberg History Medal, a Kellett Fellowship, was named an Honorary Scholar at Clare College, and won a Bowdoin Prize for a chapter of his Harvard dissertation.