At the MassArt Art Museum, ‘Designing Motherhood’ explores the tools and trials of caregiving

The history of design reveals the values, power structures and fears of a culture. Attitudes about caregiving, reproductive freedom, race and gender are forged in the tools, devices and history on display, and the art dips into the sweat and sweetness of motherhood. This tenderness shines through, as in Joan E. Biren’s sweet 1979 photograph, “Denyta with her daughter Darquita”.

Joan E. Biren, “Denyta with her daughter Darquita”, 1979. Archival inkjet print.

Joan E. Biren

“Designing Motherhood” is the brainchild of Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick, who conceived the show after meeting at a baby shower in 2015. It took longer to gestate than expected.

“We were told, ‘There is no audience.’ “It’s a niche problem.” “It doesn’t belong in a design museum.” “This does not belong in an art museum,” said Millar Fisher, curator of contemporary decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts since 2019, although it is an independent project.

The lack of interest could have been a denial of what was then a creeping assault on Roe. But it also speaks to a societal distaste for the unpredictability of the body – especially those with wombs – which can be so irrational, so eruptive, so fluid and unpredictable. (An exhibition with menstrual cups and breast pump flanges? Please!) I’ll call it disgust misogyny; this results in a lack of policies that support families and individuals, and robs people of their sovereignty over themselves.

For lack of a place at first, the curators set up an animation instagram page. They wrote a book proposal. And for a time, the publishers’ response was, Millar Fisher said, “crickets.”

Fisher-Price Nursery Monitor, 1983.
Erik Gould/Designing Motherhood

But last year, MIT Press published the book, and the exhibit finally came to the world, in Philadelphia, in conjunction with the Mütter Museum (a treasure trove of medical history) and the Center for Architecture and Design. Millar Fisher and Winick have added commissioners Juliana Rowen Barton, Zoë Greggs and Gabriella Nelson to their team. Delving deep into education on maternal issues, they work in Boston with Neighborhood birth centerwhich plans to open a midwife-assisted childbirth and care space in 2023.

The MassArt Art Museum, which opened just before the pandemic, is an ideal place for “Designing Motherhood” and suddenly fills a design museum-sized hole in the New England cultural landscape with an exhibition dynamic and extremely relevant.

Killing Roe jeopardizes the health and safety of pregnant women. States with the the most restrictive abortion laws already have the weakest outcomes for maternal and child health, according to health care think tank The Commonwealth Fund. With Roe’s downfall, doctors brace for dire consequences, and experts say women of color will be most affected.

Conservatives 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 exhibit glossary. The show addresses the experiences of trans and disabled parents, as well as women who have struggled with infertility.

George C. Stoney, stills from “All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story”, 1953. With Mary Francis Hill Coley and commissioned by the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Library of Congress

George C. Stoney’s 1953 documentary, “All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Storya training film commissioned by the Georgia Department of Public Health, shown here, follows Mary Francis Hill Coley, a black midwife during the Jim Crow era, when some hospitals wouldn’t admit black women.

Hill Coley’s warmth and intimacy of home birth contrast starkly with Designing Motherhood’s portrayal of hospital birth in the 20th century. Most tools for hospital births, such as stirrups, were designed for the convenience of the doctor, not the patient.

A 1958 Ladies Home Journal exposed includes a letter from an anonymous labor and delivery nurse, writing of her labor patients: “Often she is tied up. . . legs in stirrups with knees wide apart, for eight hours. On one occasion, an obstetrician informed the nurses on call that he was going to a dinner party and that things needed to be slowed down. The young mother was taken to the delivery room and bound with her hands and feet, her legs tied together.

If you’ve ever had a pelvic exam, prepare to cringe: Here, the 19th-century speculums look like torture devices, except for the newest, which is the only one designed by women: Fran’s 2019. Wang and Rachel Hobart. Yona Speculum Prototypemade of surgical grade silicone, not cold metal.

Alison Croney Moses. “My Belly”, 2021. Part of the “My Black Body” series. Cedar wood, milk paint. Commissioned for the “Designing Motherhood” exhibition by the Maternity Care Coalition Advisors. Courtesy of the artist. Etienne Tourlentes

Design seeks to solve problems; a 1983 Fisher-Price Nursery Monitor released parents while baby slept. Art seeks to explore problems, and the art here does not flinch from the trials of motherhood. Alison Croney Moses’ “My Belly” recreates her own pregnant form in cedar wood. The Boston carpenter knows how to do seams, but here they don’t quite match, conveying the stress and pain of a full-term pregnancy.

Designing Motherhood artists often create works from personal experience. Photographer Jess Dugan’s portrait “Vanessa and Jess with Elinor (2 days)” is a diptych of the artist and their partner, each holding their newborn baby. Vanessa, who had a C-section, wears mesh underwear provided by the hospital and used postpartum to hold pads and ice packs. The underwear, essential garment for parents who have just given birth, is exhibited elsewhere in the living room, and again reminds us that the models are more and more user-friendly.

Ani Liu had a baby as she started a new university job without maternity leave. Her “Untitled (Pumping)”, a can of synthetic milk circulating in tubes, depicts the milk she pumped in two days, and “Untitled (Labor of Love)” is a 30-day calendar consumed with unpaid pumping work, and changing diapers.

Pregnancy and new parenthood are portals to another life. Tabitha Soren hung a camera above her bed and photographed the dance of mother and newborn for three months in 2006 and 2007. In “MOTHERLOAD”, a magnificent projection in Renaissance tones and figuration in rose gold, the photos blend into each other, capturing the exquisite, sweet and trying intimacy of early motherhood, the way time stretches and space shrinks.

Art reminds us that our body, with all its unsightly blood, disorders and hormones, is the seat of consciousness, self-expression and identity. The realm of reproduction is all of this and more: love, grief, grief, union, joy. The closer we look at how society tries to control such unquantifiable things, as Designing Motherhood masterfully does, the more we will be able to tolerate the mess of being human. Not even a disastrous Supreme Court decision can reverse this trend.

DESIGNING MOTHERHOOD: the things that make and break our births

At the MassArt Art Museum, 621 Huntington Ave., until December 18. https://maam.massart.edu


Cate McQuaid can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.

Dora W. Clawson