“Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births,” lays bare ways in which powerful white men have dictated the terms of reproduction for two centuries. Soon after the show opened at the MassArt Art Museum, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The topic couldn’t be more timely, or more sobering.
The stellar exhibition spotlights medical, architectural, and fashion designs alongside contemporary art focused on reproduction, birth, infancy, and parenting. Many objects tell a hair-raising tale of where we’ve been and, tragically, where we are returning. The Del-Em, an at-home abortion kit for early pregnancy, was distributed by the Los Angeles Self-Help Clinic in 1971, pre-Roe v. Wade. Today, there’s medication. At least for now.
Design history reveals a culture’s values, power structures, and fears. Attitudes about caregiving, reproductive freedom, race, and gender are forged into the tools, devices, and history on display, and the art dives into the sweat and sweetness of motherhood. That tenderness shines through, as in Joan E. Biren’s 1979 photograph, “Denyta with Her Daughter Darquita.”
“Designing Motherhood” is the brainchild of Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick, who conceived of the show after meeting at a baby shower in 2015. Its gestation took longer than expected.
“We’ve been told, ‘There’s no audience.’ ‘It’s a niche issue.’ ‘It doesn’t belong in a design museum.’ ‘It doesn’t belong in an art museum,’” said Millar Fisher, who has been curator of contemporary decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts since 2019, although this is an independent project.
The lack of interest might have been denial about what was then a creeping assault on Roe. But it also speaks to a societal distaste for the unpredictability of the body — particularly ones with uteruses — which can be so irrational, so eruptive, so fluid and unpredictable. (An exhibition with menstrual cups and breast-pump flanges? Please!) I’ll call that distaste misogyny; it results in a paucity of policies supporting families and individuals, and robs people of sovereignty over themselves.
Lacking a venue at first, the curators put up a lively Instagram page. They wrote a book proposal. And for a time, the response from publishers was, Millar Fisher said, “crickets.”
But last year, MIT Press published the book, and the exhibition finally arrived in the world, in Philadelphia, jointly at the Mütter Museum (a trove of medical history) and the Center for Architecture and Design. Millar Fisher and Winick added curators Juliana Rowen Barton, Zoë Greggs, and Gabriella Nelson to their team. Diving deep into education about maternal matters, they’re working in Boston with Neighborhood Birth Center, which plans to open a space for midwife-facilitated childbirth and care in 2023.
The MassArt Art Museum, which opened just before the pandemic, is an ideal venue for “Designing Motherhood” and suddenly fills a design museum-size hole in the New England cultural landscape with a dynamic, starkly relevant exhibition.
Striking down Roe imperils the health and safety of pregnant people. The states with the most restrictive abortion laws already have the weakest health outcomes for mother and child, according to the health care think tank The Commonwealth Fund. With the fall of Roe, doctors are bracing for dire consequences, and experts say women of color will be the most affected.
The curators address the racist histories of health care and social policy in America while embracing inclusivity. “Motherhood is shorthand for acts that go beyond a gender binary and beyond people who have been pregnant or given birth,” they write in an exhibition glossary. The show addresses experiences of trans and disabled parents, as well as women who have struggled with infertility.
George C. Stoney’s 1953 documentary, “All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story,” a training film commissioned by the Georgia Department of Public Health on view here, follows Mary Francis Hill Coley, a Black midwife during the Jim Crow era, when some hospitals would not admit Black women.
Hill Coley’s warmth, and the intimacy of home birth, make a stunning contrast to the picture “Designing Motherhood” draws of 20th-century hospital delivery. Most of the tools for hospital births, such as stirrups, were designed for the ease of the doctor, not the patient.
A 1958 Ladies Home Journal on display includes a letter from an anonymous labor and delivery nurse, writing of her laboring patients: “Often she is strapped . . . legs in stirrups with knees pulled far apart, for as long as eight hours. On one occasion, an obstetrician informed the nurses on duty that he was going to a dinner and that they should slow up things. The young mother was taken into the delivery room and strapped down hand and foot with her legs tied together.”
If you’ve ever had a pelvic exam, be prepared to cringe: Speculums here dating back to the 19th century look like torture devices, except the newest, which is the only one designed by women: Fran Wang and Rachel Hobart’s 2019 Yona Speculum Prototype, made of surgical-grade silicone, not chilly metal.
Design seeks to solve problems; a 1983 Fisher-Price Nursery Monitor freed parents up while baby slept. Art seeks to explore problems, and the art here doesn’t flinch at the trials of maternity. Alison Croney Moses’s “My Belly” re-creates her own pregnant form in cedar wood. The Boston woodworker knows how to make seams, but here, they don’t quite fit, conveying the stress and pain of a full-term pregnancy.
The artists in “Designing Motherhood” often make work from personal experience. Photographer Jess Dugan’s portrait “Vanessa and Jess with Elinor (2 Days Old)” is a diptych of the artist and their partner, each holding their newborn. Vanessa, who had a caesarean section, wears hospital-issued mesh underwear used after childbirth to hold pads and icepacks. The underwear, an indispensable garment for parents who have just given birth, is on display elsewhere in the show, and another reminder that designs are more and more user friendly.
Ani Liu had a baby just as she was starting a new university job without maternity leave. Her “Untitled (pumping),” a box of synthetic milk circulating through tubes, represents the milk she pumped in two days, and “Untitled (labor of love)” is a 30-day calendar consumed with the unpaid labor of pumping, and changing diapers.
Pregnancy and new parenthood are portals to another life. Tabitha Soren suspended a camera over her bed and photographed the dance of mother and newborn for three months in 2006 and 2007. In “MOTHERLOAD,” a gorgeous projection with rose-gold Renaissance tones and figuration, the photos fade into one another, capturing the exquisite, sweet, and trying intimacy of early motherhood, the way time elongates and space shrinks.
The art reminds us that our bodies, with all their unsightly blood and mess and hormones, are the seat of conscience, self-expression, and identity. The realm of reproduction is all that and more: love, heartache, grief, union, joy. The more closely we examine how society tries to rein in such unquantifiable things, as “Designing Motherhood” masterfully does, the more we’ll be able to tolerate the messiness of being human. Even a disastrous Supreme Court ruling can’t turn back that tide.
DESIGNING MOTHERHOOD: Things That Make and Break Our Births
At MassArt Art Museum, 621 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 18. https://maam.massart.edu
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.