Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break our Births

Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break our Births is a multifaceted project that explores human reproduction through our material cultures. Organized collaboratively by Juliana Rowen Barton, Zoe Gregg, Michelle Millar Fisher, Gabriella Nelson, and Amber Winick, it began as an award-winning book published through MIT Press, and evolved to include a design curriculum, a website, and an exhibition traveling from Philadelphia to Boston, then Seattle and Stockholm. I was excited to catch it at Boston’s MassArt Museum of Art (MAAM), where it's on view through December 18th.

Designing Motherhood is a complex show that can appear deceptively straightforward. The layout is clean with minimal wall text, and many items on display will seem familiar at first to those who’ve experienced the ups and downs of having a uterus. As I wandered through I nodded in recognition at an array of delicate, curiously shaped IUDs, early tampon designs, and a selection of baby carriers used around the world. But among these were quite a few things I couldn’t identify. Consulting the exhibition guide I discovered critical tools I'd never heard of, many designed to address inevitable flaws in a birthing industry where men predominate. The accompanying texts unfurl narratives of struggle, innovation, love and empowerment.

prototypes for a discreet, flushable pregnancy test
designed by Bethany Edwards and Anna Couturier
Simpson, and a tactile pregnancy test for the blind
designed by Josh Wasserman

During my visit, a college class arrived for a tour with co-curator Michelle Millar Fischer, who led the group towards an unpleasant-looking surgical device designed by J. Marion Sims, the so-called "father of modern gynecology." She explained that though it is commonly known as the Sims Instrument, the tool is also labeled here as "Lucy," the name used by Ob/Gyn Kameelah Phillips and her surgical team to shift recognition to one of the enslaved black women on whom it was first tested. We moved on to a silicone speculum now under development by a four-woman team, and a guide created by disabled members of San Francisco's Planned Parenthood to make pelvic exams less painful and more accessible for a variety of bodies. This approach exemplifies the tone of the exhibition: it spotlights designs that support reproductive sovereignty, solidarity, and care across a spectrum of cultural, disability, gender identities - without shying away from the patriarchal history of obstetrics and gynecology.  As the show travels, it incorporates local resource guides that include feminist healthcare collectives, counseling centers, and other systems of support.

a necklace with color-coded beads to track ovulation, 
designed with a group led by Dr. Maria Hengstberger
In Designing Motherhood, design and activism are often interchangeable, and community organizing stands out as a critical form of care. There are flushable pregnancy tests for those in precarious situations, and home abortion kits made from easy-to-find objects, created in 1971 by the Los Angeles Self Help Clinic. Documentation of the MIT Media Lab’s “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon plays on a monitor alongside those standard pump models that keep surprising new moms with their poor design, and a video by artist Arrow (aka Ari Fitz) explores maternity wear from the perspective of a queer masculine pregnant person of color. 

Numerous products used in women's health care haven't been updated much since their invention, something Designing Motherhood aims to change. In its Philadelphia iteration, its curators collaborated with UPenn professor Orkan Telhan to develop an open source curriculum for art and design classes, introducing the challenges and inequities mothers encounter as series of creative prompts. In Boston, the show is hosted by MAAM, a teaching museum linked to the city’s public college of art and design. During my visit, a student gestured her group over to inspect an irregular grid of blue and red rectangles by Ani Liu. It was a chart tracking the time of every feeding, pumping, and diaper change during the first 30 days of her child's life. It's a form of data-collection that pediatricians urge many mothers to undertake, and I remembered the process all too well. Even so, it is striking to see a single graphic that captures the extreme, round-the-clock fracturing of time that takes place in early parenthood, during which Liu was granted no maternity leave. I try to imagine what the next generation might make of this information, and what it could mean for the future. 

The exhibition will travel on to Seattle in 2023, and then on to Stockholm, Sweden. No matter where you are, the Designing Motherhood book is well worth seeking out. It is not an exhibition catalogue but a thick, beautifully-designed collection packed with essays, interviews, and images that extends beyond the scope of the show. You can also find designed objects, international policies and more by following their ongoing IG account @designingmotherhood

Ani Liu's "Untitled (Labor of Love)," charting the first 30 days of her child's life

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