Since working as an undergraduate peer counselor for minority students at the University of Kansas, psychologist Mary Gregerson, PhD, has had an interest in Native American culture. In fact, as a graduate student, she consulted with tribes across the nation to evaluate their education, government and medical programs.

So when the Smithsonian Institution's newest museum, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), opened in September on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Gregerson, a private practitioner from nearby Alexandria, Va., helped train the museum staff on how to effectively handle the needs of visitors.

In fact, Gregerson's help is her most recent effort in an intermittent advisory role with the museum for more than 10 years.

In the early 1990s, Gregerson provided pro bono environmental and performance psychology consultation on the museum's planning by analyzing how the Smithsonian museums used their outdoor space. She suggested that NMAI offer an interactive setting by hosting public performances in its outdoor environs. Honoring the natural environment this way, she says, respects Native Americans' cultural values. Also, she advised the museum designers to include an even-handed emphasis on cultural, spiritual and family values--the enduring legacy of the American Indian, she notes.

Today, the museum's rotating exhibits on different Native American tribes keep the museum fresh and foster a sense of movement, she says. "There is a great diversity and mobility within the Native American world, and this mechanism acknowledges that diversity and fluidity," she says. "Rotating exhibits offer a sense of movement and of there being a mobile environment."

In her latest work, she again used psychology to provide NMAI staff and volunteer training on how they can best assist visitors. For example, she recast the customer service training as "visitor service training" to emphasize the notion that museum visitors were coming to visit a home, not to purchase something.

She then covered such diplomatic topics as how staff can calm irate visitors and identify their needs.

Gregerson, a charter member of the museum, says she is excited about the energy and enthusiasm surrounding the staff and the museum.

"If visitors open their eyes and look at things differently than their normal conceptualizations," she says, "they'll leave with an incredibly rich experience."

--M. GREER

Further Reading

Visit the National Museum of the American Indian Web site at http://www.nmai.si.edu.

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