At the end of July, I passed my PhD with minor corrections.
It is a simple thing to say, and seems really rather poignant at a time when young people have recently received their A-level results. Many of whom, having been assessed by their teachers during the unprecedented COVID-19 lockdown restrictions we have been experiencing, have been down-graded for reasons that don’t completely make sense to me. These students did not get to sit the exams that they had been expecting and it was the exam part of the PhD, the viva, which was something that I was dreading from the moment I took on the challenge. I did not get great A-level results, which were mostly based on exams. I personally do not believe that exams are the best way to assess someones ability, if you are not at your best on one single day you put several years' worth of work in jeopardy, and that is a lot of pressure to be put under. I was lucky enough to still get in to the university course that I planned to do through the clearing system.
My undergraduate degree in the History and Theory of Design, Art, and Photography was modular and was graded throughout the course with a written essay at the end of each unit and a final dissertation. I then went on to do an MA in Museum Studies, again graded through course work which included essays, group work, work experience, and a final dissertation, again no exam. Twelve years later and after working curatorially at various museums, gaining great experience and insights into collections, and visitor relationships with them, I started my PhD at the University of Brighton. Seven years of hard work, alongside working as the Assistant Curator and latterly Curator of MoDiP, culminated in an unusual digital hand in of an 75,500-word dissertation in May this year. The COVID-19 lockdown meant that the viva had to be conducted in a virtual way, which for me was a welcome experience. I was happy to be sat in my own home and was much more relaxed being in such a familiar environment, the exam fear was reduced.
After an hour of conversation and a short break during which the outcome was discussed, it was a joyous moment when my examiners told me I had passed. All that hard work had paid off, both examiners said they enjoyed reading my work which was extremely gratifying, and I have very few corrections to make so plan to hand in the final version of my dissertation by the end of August. Then I can really celebrate.
My thesis, A Matter of Material: Exploring the Value of the Museum of Design in Plastics (MoDiP), sets out to understand how a museum focusing on a single material family can contribute to the societal and museological comprehension of design in plastics. It looks at how museums communicate a group of materials that audiences believe they know and understand, yet that knowledge and understanding may not be the whole story. It explores why it might seem strange that a museum dedicated to plastics even exists. It does this by looking at what museums are, what they have been traditionally, and what they can become.
The research uses the tools of case study as a methodology to make a close study of the functions and collections of MoDiP. These tools sit alongside the curatorial practices of collections and object research, audience sampling through surveys and social media, as well as visiting other museums and exhibitions and reflecting on such experiences. By using these methods, this work investigates the material qualities of plastics, alongside other materials, and looks at why the placement of some materials within the museum setting might be difficult to comprehend and how, by being the sole focus of the museum, materials can be more deeply explored.
Passing my PhD might be then end of one journey, but it also represents the beginning of another. I look forward to finding out where that journey will take me.
Louise Dennis, Curator of MoDiP