Designing Motherhood exhibition opens at the Mütter Museum

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Designing Motherhood exhibition opens at the Mütter Museum
Predictor Home Pregnancy Test Kit, 1971, designed by Meg Crane. Image courtesy Brendan McCabe.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- Designing Motherhood, a multifaceted project comprising a two-venue exhibition, a book, a design curriculum, a Story Bank oral history project, and public programs, debuts its inaugural exhibition in Philadelphia at the Mütter Museum's Cadwalader Gallery, on view now through May 2022. Organized by design historians and writers Michelle Millar Fisher, Amber Winick, and Juliana Rowen Barton, in partnership with Maternity Care Coalition (MCC), Designing Motherhood will explore the arc of human reproduction through the lens of design from the nineteenth century to the present day. The Designing Motherhood book, a 344-page volume published by the MIT Press, will debut in September 2021 concurrently with the second exhibition at the Center for Architecture and Design, Philadelphia. Throughout the course of 2021, a robust line up of public programming—ranging from talks to workshops—will unfold, foregrounding the pioneering community engagement and culturally appropriate work of MCC who has been serving clients in the Philadelphia region since 1980.

“This project examines one of the most fundamental experiences in life—being born. We started Designing Motherhood in 2017 to confront the large gap around this topic in the design collections and classrooms where we work, as well as in culture more broadly. The material culture of human reproduction speaks volumes about its perceived value,” says the curatorial team. “Designing Motherhood unpacks the history of science, design, and culture to deepen an understanding of ourselves as people and a society, and looks for ways where design can address some of humanity’s most pressing issues.”

With the generous support of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Designing Motherhood aims to elevate and deepen cultural awareness and dialogue surrounding reproductive agency and culturally appropriate care in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experiences, building on the strong foundation of work by Maternity Care Coalition. By exploring designs that range from nineteenth century obstetric tools to family leave policies to the very cells that divide and become new life, together the exhibitions, book, and public programs will offer an expansive exploration of the universality of the birth experience from a multivalent perspective—the direction already taken on the curators’ popular Instagram account @designingmotherhood.

“Designing Motherhood is an invaluable project that examines many aspects of human reproduction that we at Maternity Care Coalition grapple with daily,” states Marianne Fray, Chief Executive Officer, Maternity Care Coalition. “Though MCC is internationally recognized for our work, it’s work is often siloed as a “women’s issue” rather than understood as the foundation of healthy citizens, societies, and culture at large.”

As MCC’s Associate Director of Policy Gabriella Nelson, who trained as an urban planner at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, puts it: “Motherhood is housing, it is food security, it's public education, it's healthcare systems, it's public transportation. MCC advocates for policies that are equitable and responsive to mothers and their babies.” Nelson, along with MCC staffer Zoë Greggs, will co-lead the Designing Motherhood Story Banking Initiative which will gather stories of Maternity Care Coalition’s community centered work and celebrate families by setting them to images and sound.

Alongside the exhibitions and public programs, the project includes a stand-alone book, Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births (MIT Press, forthcoming 2021) featuring fifty chapters authored by Fisher and Winick, as well as interviews with and essays by more than fifty designers, reproductive justice advocates, and everyday people sharing their stories. Arranged into four main areas of inquiry —Reproduction, Pregnancy, Birth, Postpartum—the peer-reviewed publication investigates designs related to human reproduction and fertility, the changing mores surrounding contraception, fertility enablement, pregnancy termination, and the choice to be childfree. Aiming to interrogate traditionally gendered narratives of parenthood, the book explores the design of language and policy around male birth and transgender experiences of parenthood. Over both written and visual essays, Designing Motherhood traces the changing attitudes and perceptions of birth that reflect far-reaching social values such as the medicalization of birth, home birth, and related innovations and design interventions including the Fetal Doppler, Pinard’s Horn, obstetrical forceps, and stirrups. With a focus on postpartum experiences, the final section of the book offers fresh perspectives on the nursing bra, infant formula, the car seat, baby carriers, the breast pump, diapering tables, and the stroller. Throughout the four sections, the book grapples with cultural perceptions of birth, from birth in film and rites of gender reveal to post-partum abdominal wrapping and baby showers.

“At the heart of the Designing Motherhood project is a deep desire to explore the cultural histories and implications of birth as the experience has evolved over time,” offers the curatorial team. “Central to this project has also been partnering with Maternity Care Coalition, in particular their invaluable team of advisors, whose work empowering families navigating reproductive health, pregnancy, and early childhood in Philadelphia’s communities has guided and informed every step of our project.”

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