Designing Motherhood: Project highlights objects shaped by motherhood | Design
The humble breast pump, long used behind closed doors, finally takes off in the sun.
In 2015, Michelle Millar Fisher, then curatorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, proposed to acquire the Egnell SMB 1956 breast pump for the museum’s design collection. One of the first models of breast pumps derived from the observation of humans instead of bovine subjects, it seemed to her to be a prime candidate, following the path of other labor-saving devices intended for women for the House. “Why couldn’t it be there, alongside the KitchenAid and the Hoover and other things imagined in the mid-20th century that are now enshrined in design collections? She was gently pushed back, but she and her fellow design historian Amber Winick continued on their own to pursue a larger project on reproduction and design. Post #MeToo, they found a publisher.
And gave birth to an exhibition. Today, at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, the Egnell SMB breast pump, a heavy metal device the size of a toaster, shines triumphantly alongside a delicate 19th-century breast pump and the elegant minimalist bra Willow wireless. Like many objects in their exhibition, Conceiving Motherhood: The Things That Make and Break Our Births, these everyday objects refer to broader structural conversations.
“Arguably the most ubiquitous design object governing parenthood in the United States today,” the breast pump “is a contested object, for some representing freedom of choice and for others demonstrating the relentless pressure to ‘breastfeed at all costs,’ write Winick and Millar Fisher in their next book. “By its very existence, the pump reveals the absence of a much more holistic conception of family leave. “
Although the experience of human reproduction touches us all at least once in our lifetime, its effects remain taboo, under-studied, and excluded from exhibitions and publications covering the history and practice of architecture and design. In these areas, motherhood is treated stealthily or as unimportant, even though it defines the daily experiences of many – some 6 million American women are pregnant at any given time.
Such a treatment of something so fundamental to humanity prompted design historians Winick and Millar Fisher to develop Designing Motherhood, a one-of-a-kind exploration of the arc of human reproduction through the lens of design. Their effort includes a book, a series of exhibitions and public programs in Philadelphia, as well as a design program taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
Their book sheds light on over a hundred conceptions – which the authors call “iconic, profound, archaic, moving, emotionally charged, or just plain bizarre” – that have defined the relationships between people, reproductive experiences, and infants during of the last century. They include pregnancy pillows, sheer cesarean curtains, Finnish baby boxes, the tie-up skirt that normalized mid-century American public pregnancy, the 1982 Planned Parenthood booklet Table Manners: A Guide to the Pelvic Examination. for Disabled Women and Health Care Providers, the work of Drs Spock and Kegel, Gender revealing cakes and Mamava lactation pods. Winick and Millar Fisher see their project as “a public calculation with designs that, for better or worse, shape the experiences for all of us.”
A selection of items are now on display in an exhibit at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, supported by items from the Reproductive Health Collection of the Museum of Medical History. Millar Fisher and Winick worked for years to get the green light for such a project in a major cultural institution. “People’s reactions ranged from, like, ‘ick’ and ‘ew’ to ‘the women’s issue’, but the general misconception is that it doesn’t matter,” said Millar Fisher. “This begs the question, who decides what matters? I have yet to meet a museum director who has ever used a menstrual cup or tampon or breast pump. These are not the experiences of most people in positions of power. “
The project takes a broad view of design, including policy development, which is a specialty of the Maternity Care Coalition, a key partner with 40 years of expertise serving low-income communities in South East. Pennsylvania with culturally appropriate care was vital. to the conception of motherhood. “People on the streets might not understand why design matters – it looks like fancy stuff,” says Zoë Greggs, MCC staff member, who is also curatorial assistant on the project. “Designing Motherhood did a really good job not controlling knowledge. Focusing it on the human experience is such a rare and beautiful way to operate.
“To be really frank, no one needs two other white women to tell reproductive justice stories, especially when this area started with the work of women of color,” says Millar Fisher. “We always say that we follow MCC because they have been doing this work since before we were born. “
But it’s only in recent years that the topic of motherhood has become “almost all the rage,” says Millar Fisher, citing the 2019 launch of the New York Times parenting section of books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. and last month’s news about falling birth rates in the United States. . “These conversations have always been there, but have melted into the public media over the past couple of years. “
And the ongoing pandemic has brought these issues to the fore. “The reports of women not re-entering the workforce and the issues of parental work during the lockdown – all of these things are built into the project,” says Juliana Rowen Barton, architecture and design historian and curator who also helped organize Designing Motherhood. . “The past year has upped the ante because we realize that things need to change – and we want our project to be part of that conversation.
In the exhibition, this means emphasizing the profession of midwifery as a counterpoint to Mütter’s strong collection of obstetric tools. Winick mentions the 1953 educational film All My Babies, in which documentary legend George C Stoney follows a well-respected Georgian midwife named Mary Francis Hill Coley for four months as she prepares for home births of babies among black rural families. “It was said at that time that there was this big change – birth was moving from the bedroom to the hospital room,” says Winick. By the turn of the 20th century, almost everyone in the United States was giving birth at home, and midwives lived in the same community as pregnant people. (Black women were often denied admission to hospitals, making midwifery-assisted home births the only viable option for black families.) But by 1950, the majority of deliveries took place. in the hospital ; today, this is where 99% of births occur.
The film foreshadows the demise of the black midwifery profession, recording the tension between black midwives interacting with the white doctors and nurses at the county clinic. “The black midwives who had really been in charge of care in the south were now positioned in whiter midwifery spaces and had to ‘learn’ from these white doctors and nurses,” notes Winick.
Barton continues to frequently observe in the news the evolution of maternity and reproduction associations, from last year’s allegations of forced sterilization in immigrant detention centers to George Floyd’s latest anguished appeals for his mother. “We don’t have to find ways to illustrate how these themes are intertwined with every element of our life. Progress is not that this show happened – progress is that these conversations continue to take place.