Appreciating museum art galleries and exhibitions rests on the shoulders of museum docents, volunteers who guide tours. Their audience includes children, older adults, and people with hearing disorders, making their speech and gestures sometimes more important than the words they convey.
“Clear speech consists of speaking at a slower rate, increasing pauses, facing visitors, and using hand gestures such as pointing at a piece of artwork,” says Worcester State University Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders Susanna Meyer, Ph.D.
Through our partnership with Worcester Art Museum, Meyer and colleagues investigated the effectiveness of teaching clear-speech techniques to docents at the museum. Evaluating the speech of 15 docents before and after the training, they found a significant acoustic improvement. They presented the research at the American Speech-Language Hearing Association convention last November.
The research team included Meyer as well as Ann Veneziano-Korzec, director of the WSU Speech-Language-Hearing Center, Dean of the School of Education, Health and Natural Sciences Linda Larrivee, Ph.D., and alumnae Alison Hickey and Katherine Weiss.
“Our visitors’ impression of the museum—and of art—lies in the docents’ hands, which is why this clear-speech training is so important,” says Worcester Art Museum’s Associate Curator of Education Katrina Stacy. “Our volunteers learned a considerable amount about the struggles people have comprehending information on a tour. For example, the simple act of turning away from the group and facing the painting while talking has a negative impact on how the information is communicated.”
Last spring, as a senior in the undergraduate communication sciences and disorders program, Alison Hickey analyzed the recorded speech of the docents before and after the training, noting length, speed, and pauses. The experience inspired her to continue her study of speech-language pathology in Worcester State’s master’s degree program.
“The research made me much more interested in aural rehabilitation and accommodating people with hearing loss with simple techniques such as clear speech,” says Hickey.
The benefits of the training are invaluable for WAM. “Our partnership with Worcester State University is a wonderful step forward to improving accessibility to our museum,” says Stacy. “These docents are giving tours to visitors of all ages and disabilities, and I am thrilled with what I’ve been seeing and hearing.”
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