'Designing Motherhood' Delves Into Material Culture of Birth at MassArt Art Museum

  • April 07, 2022 13:29

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Joan E. Biren. Darquita with her daughter, 1990. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy the artist.
Maria Eife. Dress Flanges, 2019. Nylon and metal. Installation view. Photo: Constance Mensh.
Fisher-Price Nursery Monitor, 1983. Photo: Erik Gould. Image: Courtesy Designing Motherhood.
Tie-waist skirt featured on the back cover of the Page Boy fall/winter catalog 1952. Image: Courtesy Texas Fashion Collection, University of North Texas Libraries.

The MassArt Art Museum (MAAM) announces its next exhibition, Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births, on view June 11 - December 18, 2022. Organized by a curatorial team that includes design historians, birth advocates, and medical and midwifery history experts, Designing Motherhood explores the arc of human reproduction through the lens of design and art from the 19th century to the present day.

The display of nearly 200 works includes historic and contemporary breast pumps, baby monitors, forceps, and maternity clothes, alongside vintage advertisements, and contemporary art across media. The exhibition demonstrates the evolution of rights and societal norms pertaining to con(tra)ception, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum experiences over the last 150 years, highlighting that birth – and the material culture that surrounds it – impacts every living person. Designing Motherhood at the MassArt Art Museum will bring together, for the first time, the art and design works exhibited at two previous venues and will incorporate work by five additional contemporary artists – Joan E. Biren, Jess Dugan ‘07, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ani Liu, and Tabitha Soren – who join a rich group of contemporary and historic artists and designers tackling subjects and ideas related to the topic at hand.

Our Bodies, Ourselves, second edition c. 1973. Photo: Erik Gould. Image: Courtesy Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Designing Motherhood is a perfect exhibition for MAAM,” said Lisa Tung, Executive Director of the MassArt Art Museum. “As the teaching museum for a pre-eminent art and design college, we are thrilled that we can simultaneously showcase design history while highlighting the work of contemporary artists, addressing a subject matter that impacts everyone yet is not openly addressed.”

Aiming to interrogate traditionally gendered narratives of parenthood, as well as racial and socio-economic disparities in access to care, the exhibition centers experiences of (in)fertility, pregnancy, postpartum, and parenthood grouped in thematic sections including Milk, Means of Reproduction, Postpartum, Temporary Bodies, and Midwives. The exhibition features objects that monitor fertility and baby sleep cycles, birth furniture and nasal aspirators, and the material culture surrounding our relationship to our own bodies, including contraception designs, childfree literature, and a self-exam mirror. Works by contemporary artists and designers augment these conversations, including MassArt alum Jess T. Dugan’s photography which explores their experiences of queer parenting; jewelry maker Maria Eife’s decorative breast pump flanges; woodworker Alison Croney Moses’ sculpture of her pregnant belly; and Ani Liu’s installation of the labor involved in producing human milk.

“This project examines one of the most fundamental experiences in life—being born. We started the Designing Motherhood project in 2017 to confront the large gap around this topic in the collections and classrooms where we work, as well as in culture more broadly,” says the curatorial team. “Motherhood is not just a ‘women’s issue.’ This exhibition is for everyone because we’re all born and thus all shaped by these things that ‘make and break our births.’ We are so grateful the MAAM team has welcomed and supported the project and we can’t wait to share it with New England audiences.” 

The exhibition originated in Philadelphia at the Mütter Museum and the Center for Architecture and Design where the curatorial team partnered for three years with the pioneering Maternity Care Coalition, who have worked since 1980 to empower families navigating reproductive health, pregnancy, and early childhood in that city. In Boston, MAAM and the Designing Motherhood team are proud to partner with Neighborhood Birth Center (NBC) as the lead thought partner for this presentation, an organization whose mission is to offer comprehensive community-based midwifery care by integrating an independent and freestanding birth center in Boston’s healthcare and community landscape.  

Installation view of IUDs and Intracervical devices from 1935-1982. Collection The Mütter Museum, Philadelphia. Photo: Constance Mensh.

The Designing Motherhood book, a 344 page volume published by the MIT Press, accompanies the project. Major support for the overall project was originally provided to Maternity Care Coalition by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia, with additional support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. A rich set of public programs is being planned, including connections between the exhibition content and MassArt curriculum.



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