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Blood red display cases. Forceps. A row of tiny IUDs.

Welcome to Designing Motherhood, a new exhibit that explores the arc of motherhood from the 19th century to today.

Such objects are prominent when exhibit-goers first step inside the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Written descriptions, meanwhile, are sparse; visitors are instead invited to consider the design features of the objects themselves: the metallic curve of a speculum, for example, or a chrome-plated breast pump alongside a baby bottle.

“The first thing that you see are the tools, the instruments,” says curator and design historian Michelle Millar Fisher. “That’s the first thing we want people to do, is have an intensely visual experience.”

But the museum exhibit — curated by Fisher, along with writer and design historian Amber Winick and design historian Juliana Rowen Barton — is just one portion of a far-reaching project that also includes a design course for students, as well as public programming. It is designed in partnership with the Maternity Care Coalition, which serves pregnant people and their families in Philadelphia by helping them navigate prenatal and postpartum needs. Later this year, the curators will also release a book that includes more than 50 different perspectives on motherhood.

View of various different forceps at the Designing Motherhood exhibit. (Constance Mensh)
View of various different forceps at the Designing Motherhood exhibit. (Constance Mensh)

The experience of motherhood has been captured in art exhibits before, including one last year in the New Mexico State University Art Museum, co-curated by museum director Marisa Sage and artist Laurel Nakadate. The exhibit, called Labor: Motherhood & Art in 2020, explored themes of empowerment, empathy, vulnerability and choice. Many of the artists featured in the exhibit discussed their own choices to become mothers, too.

Sage says she researched other exhibits that have dealt with motherhood, as well as artists from the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and today. The complications they’ve experienced impacting their ability to do art, she says, haven’t evolved.

One common question they’ve all been asked, says Sage, is, “Who’s watching the children?” Pay inequity has also forced mothers from becoming artists, and artists from becoming mothers.

But having exhibits curated by mothers, as well as representing motherhood, is something all patrons and museums should want, Sage argues. And representing motherhood goes beyond just the obvious — and often White — representations, she says.

“How do I make sure that people who walk into our exhibits don’t just see pregnant bellies but their communities reflected back on them?” Sage says. “When you see your community, mothers, laid out on a canvas in front of you, you realize how much more layered it is.”

Designing Motherhood was largely born from the same notion. In each aspect of the project, the curators say, they seek to represent the varying experiences of motherhood and reproduction, from the joys of Black motherhood to what one man calls masculine birth. But that representation isn’t always translated through a specific object, as the initial visual experience of the exhibit would suggest.

Instead, the curators say, it’s the leaders and participants in the project who provide a diverse take on motherhood — an experience that can be both universal and highly individual. Fisher, for example, isn’t a mother herself; but she did write a chapter on the child-free movement in the forthcoming book. “I am able to co-found a project called Designing Motherhood and I am not a biological mother,” she says.

With the Maternity Care Coalition, the project also draws on the perspectives of maternity care workers in Philadelphia, both as advisers to the project as well as participants in an oral history, according to Gabriella Nelson, associate director of policy at the Maternity Care Coalition.

Their stories help illustrate how their work impacts their own communities and intersects with housing, education and power, Nelson says. One video vignette, for example, focuses on the work of a local activist who works with incarcerated women and mothers who are incarcerated.

The “lived experiences [of the advisers] play out and make it so that others who may share their lived experiences, or share some elements of the life that they’ve lived, can see themselves in the work,” says Rowen Barton, adding that this importantly spans race and socioeconomic class.

Part of reflecting reality is not shying away from the role that trauma has played in reproductive health, often at the expense of women of color, the curators say. This is especially true for Black women, who are three times more likely to die of a pregnancy-related cause than White women.

On display in the exhibit is a row of intrauterine devices (IUDs), which have allowed women to control their reproduction for decades. They’re intricately designed and even pretty, says Karen Pollack, executive vice president of programs and operations at the Maternity Care Coalition, with tiny T-shaped bodies and thin wiring dangling from them.

But among the display of different IUDs is the infamous Dalkon Shield, which has a distinct tick-like shape. In the early 1970s, the IUD was administered to about 2.5 million women in the United States and Puerto Rico, but its flawed design caused pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility. Visitors to the museum and readers of the forthcoming book learn of the harrowing tale of Loretta Ross, a pioneer of reproductive justice who had a hysterectomy in her 20s after getting a Dalkon Shield inserted.

Installation view of Designing Motherhood. (Constance Mensh)
Installation view of Designing Motherhood. (Constance Mensh)

Displaying the Dalkon Shield alongside Ross’s story allows visitors to see “not just the beauty, but also the trauma of what some of these objects meant for [people],” Pollack says.

The curators say that when possible, they made efforts to allow people to tell their stories in their own words, from Ross’s experience with the Dalkon Shield to transgender rights activist Thomas Beatie, whose pregnancy in 2008 garnered national media attention when he posed for magazine photos pregnant and shirtless. He writes a chapter in the forthcoming book discussing being misgendered throughout his pregnancies, as well as not being able to put himself down as the birth father on the birth certificate.

“Firsthand accounts are really one of the ways in which we try to address some of those elements. Not to speak for anyone, but to present their stories and to speak with them,” Rowen Barton says.

Beatie’s perspective, in particular, highlights that the experiences of motherhood are “ascribed to a certain population of people, but that population is intersectional,” Fisher says. “It’s overlapping, it is not homogenous.”

Breaking down these concepts is crucial in better incorporating people who are transgender, intersex, genderqueer and nonbinary into the experiences that the exhibit reflects, says Juno Obedin-Maliver, assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine and co-director of the Pride Study. Obedin-Maliver says she sees people of all genders in her practice. In pregnancy and reproductive health, that means talking about sex in a more inclusive way, she says: For example, the exhibit’s booklet uses language like “pregnant person.”

“We need to just get much more specific and respectful of the diversity of people’s lives,” she says.

Beauty and joy are also hallmarks of Designing Motherhood.

For Nelson, that comes through in myriad ways, including in archival images of workers from the Maternity Care Coalition. But it’s also more personal; a new mother, Nelson is featured in the forthcoming book alongside her son, August.

“Being part of something like that, as a Black woman with a little Black boy and we’re in the book, breastfeeding, with lots of brown skin showing, it did something for me,” she says. “It did something for me, just as a woman … but also as a mom and being able to allow my son to be a part of what I’m doing for work.”

For Rowen Barton, the joy of the exhibit was putting it together and working with people with all different experiences of motherhood.

“You know the saying that it takes a village to raise children? It’s like: It takes a village to put together an exhibition, or a project like this,” she says. “And that ethos is really steeped into every element in a joyous way.”

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