Finishing my PhD!

Two weeks ago I finished my PhD!

I have spent the past 4 four years doing my PhD full-time. Day after day. Week after week. Slogging it out on a quest to create new knowledge that advances society. This experience has been exhausting, exciting, intellectually arduous and of course, deeply fulfilling.

I mark the completion of the PhD as the moment I passed the viva, which is a final oral examination you do in the United Kingdom at the end of the program. The viva basically involves two academics, who are specialists in your field, reading your thesis and grilling you on it.

My viva was tough. It went for two hours. I was asked very difficult questions that I somehow waded my way through. But I made it! And at the end was told I did not need to make any further corrections to the thesis, which is rare in the PhD world.

This picture was taken at the end of my viva – right after I got my result. Pictured L-R: Prof Maggie MacLure (my external examiner from Manchester Metropolitan University), me, Prof Pat Thomson (my lead supervisor from the University of Nottingham) and Prof Christine Hall (my internal examiner from Nottingham). Missing from the picture is my awesome second supervisor, Dr. Emily Pringle who is Head of Research at Tate.

The relief I felt when those words were spoken felt like a clamp, that had been winding tighter and tighter on my chest for months, finally being released. The past four years of my life had been leading up to that very moment and I was finally able to start planning for my post-PhD life… as Dr Lou!

The final six months before I handed in the thesis were gruelling. I submitted the thesis at 3 years and 8 months, however once I hit the three-year mark in November 2018, I energetically felt like I had run a marathon. I had paced myself, both mentally and financially, for a 3-year marathon. And then I was told that I needed to keep running as I needed to keep doing reviews to strengthen the thesis. I had no idea how long this process would go on for. I was so far beyond exhausted I was genuinely surprised that I was still appearing to be functional to others. It felt like I was running alone, at night and with no compass. Also while in this state, I was being expected to produce the best intellectual and creative work of my life. And somehow that is what I did.

I rarely post academic content on this blog, however, I want to share the final abstract from my thesis with you all.

People often ask me what my research is about and this summary shares the key things that I did and what I found out along the way:

Pedagogical Curation: Connecting young children’s learning with art museum curatorial practices

Young children under the age of five have become an increasingly important audience for art museums around the world with many institutions developing specialised activities, spaces and staff for this age group. However, curatorial practices for this audience differ significantly across the sector; there are diverse perspectives on how art museums can best support children’s learning and thus diverse offers. This thesis aimed to support a well-theorised curatorial practice that is focused on learning.

This thesis explored the research question ‘how can children’s (0-5 years) learning be connected with art museums’ curatorial practices?’ The aim of the enquiry was to construct a critically reflective framework comprised of theoretical and practical resources to support art museum teams developing programmes with and for this audience.

I mobilised a Critical Participatory Action Research methodology to investigate children’s learning and curatorial practices in two art museums in the United Kingdom. The enquiry consisted of two action research cycles: each had a preliminary reconnaissance, gallery activities and analysis. Activity theory was used throughout as a framework for analysing the practice and modifying the critically reflective framework.

Action Research Cycle One, conducted in the early year’s atelier at The Whitworth Art Gallery, drew heavily on Constructivist learning principles to produce a planning guide, reflection strategies, practice principles and information resources to support the action research team in aligning children’s learning with the gallery practice. Action Research Cycle Two, run in partnership with the Early Years and Family team at Tate, built on these outcomes to investigate how New Materialist critical theory could both expand and connect the critical framework with the learning team’s curatorial practices in the new location.

In both art museums, children and their families were active participants in the gallery activities. The learning curators and artists also brought specialist knowledge from their pre-existing practices with children and families to the enquiry. Working alongside the art museum teams, my role in the action research was as an active participant in the practice.

The research shows that, for children’s learning to be better connected with art museum practices, gallery learning teams benefit from curatorial practices that have clear pedagogical foci. When learning curators and artists actively plan for, facilitate and reflect on children’s learning and their practice, learning and pedagogy become concrete and visible processes.

I have constructed a set of practical resources that can support art museum teams to align their curatorial practices with children’s learning. The resources consist of:

  • A guide for designing children’s learning environments referred to throughout the thesis as the Guide for Pedagogical Curation (GPC). The GPC supports learning curators and artists to select a learning environment’s material, conceptual, social and spatial components that scaffold learning over time
  • A set of reflection strategies for connecting children’s learning with art museum curatorial practices
  • A set of practice principles
  • Information resources including a vocabulary list and case studies of children’s learning environments.

This research makes a contribution to knowledge through the construction of a pedagogical architecture that can be used to curate learning programmes for young children and their families in art museums. By operationalising both Constructivist and New Materialist theory in gallery practice, the research also highlights the significance of designing creative spaces that take into account the material, spatial, social and conceptual components of learning environments. The outcomes of the research have direct benefits for the practice of learning curators, artists and educators working with children in art museums and beyond.

The full thesis will be published on the University of Nottingham’s e-thesis system in the coming weeks.

If you are interested in reading it, send me a message through the contact tab on this website and I will let you know when it is up.

Related Posts

‘Researching young children’s experiences in museums’ event at Manchester Metropolitan University

‘Children’s learning with new, found and recycled stuff’ symposium at Australian Association for Research in Education conference

What it was like to leave my full-time job, sell my belongings & move to the other side of the world.


  1. November 15, 2019 / 10:54 am

    Congratulations! What an achievement and in such a short amount of time! You have created and given a gift to the world of art education, museums and early childhood. Well done x

    • louisapenfoldblog
      November 23, 2019 / 5:08 am

      Thanks so much Debi! It has been an amazing and full-on 4 years. I am so fortunate to have met so many inspiring people like yourself!

  2. November 20, 2019 / 8:37 pm

    So so happy for you Louisa! And, as Debi says, delighted for those of us in the sector (our children, families and professionals) who will benefit enormously from your research and ongoing thoughtfulness and curiosity. What a great team you had – Maggie is also my brilliant supervisor. Your notes on getting past the finish line will restore my vitality and give me inspiration to continue through the treacle many times, I’m sure! Can’t wait to see what you publish and develop out of this.

    • louisapenfoldblog
      November 23, 2019 / 5:12 am

      Hi Ruth, nice to hear from you. Yes, I am very fortunate to have had such wonderful supervisors and collaborators. Maggie is amazing and I wish you all the best with your PhD journey. Please stay in touch!

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