Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 21, 2022
Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births Exh. cat. MIT Press, 2021. 344 pp.; 125 color ills. Cloth $44.95 (9780262044899)
Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, PA, May 8, 2021–April 30, 2022; Center for Architecture and Design, Philadelphia, PA, September 10–November 14, 2021; Mass Art Museum (MAAM), Boston, June 11–December 18, 2022
Designing Motherhood, installation view, MassArt Art Museum, Boston (photograph by Yukai Chen; provided by MassArt Art Museum)

It is by design that many of the artworks in the Designing Motherhood exhibition and the chapters in the accompanying catalog originate from personal experience. After all, the embodied experience of birth, as either birthing or birthed people (or both), is one we all share. Yet the “things that make or break our births” have, thus far, received little attention—sometimes in their public recognition, occasionally in their design. The Designing Motherhood curators, design historians Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick, felt we needed a “public reckoning with the designs that, for better or worse, shape experiences for all of us” (15). 

With Designing Motherhood Millar Fisher and Winick set out to highlight the many objects that make up the arc of human reproduction and demonstrate how they are enmeshed in larger political, economic, cultural, and social systems. Ambitious in depth and breadth, Designing Motherhood spans an exhibition, a book, a series of public programs, a robust social media campaign, and an open access design curriculum piloted at University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design (PennDesign).

The projects as presented in the exhibition catalog present a clear-sighted discussion on abortion, racial disparity in outcomes for maternal and infant health, and the gendered nature of birth. While all are pertinent to life in America today, the issue of abortion has gained special urgency given the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022 during the run of the exhibition. In particular, the 1971 Del-Em kit, a vacuum abortion device that could be made from readily available components, speaks to the pre-Roe history of pregnant people’s struggle to retain control over their bodies.

The MassArt iteration of the exhibition brings together nearly 200 objects loosely grouped in thematic sections, including Means of Reproduction, Milk, and Midwives. The curators have amassed an impressive range of objects across fields as diverse as product design, fashion, photography, and sculpture. Many of the objects on display are ubiquitous, everyday items: an IUD, breast pump flanges, and a prototype for a speculum. These objects are easy to take for granted but nonetheless warrant critical reappraisal for their role in upholding existing systems of power. Curatorial displays offer inroads for reevaluation by juxtaposing objects, rather than displaying them individually. Population policy posters reading “Family planning has many advantages” loom behind cases of contraceptives, for instance, materializing tensions between individual decision-making and demographic control.

The breast pump looms large as a stand-in for many of the exhibition’s driving arguments. Millar Fisher has long had an interest in this object and proposed its inclusion in an exhibition earlier in her career. She recounts, “When one of us did suggest that the breast pump be included in an exhibition while working at MoMA and then again at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, she was unsuccessful” (24). Displayed in Designing Motherhood, the 1956 Egnell SMB Breast Pump is a remarkable product, its gleaming metal and glass body and hypnotic sound teetering between an industrial-grade past and a future of mass production. Yet the significance of the pump goes beyond its form. As Millar Fisher and Winick argue, the pump also exposes society’s “unrelenting pressure to breastfeed at all costs” (260) and the ways “human milk production is tied to the larger capital structure of the global, industrial workplace” (200). Over and over, viewers confront this push and pull between capitalist pressures and biological experience.

Designing Motherhood is accompanied by a comprehensive catalog. Designed by Clanada, an international design partnership based between Zagreb, Croatia, and Brooklyn, New York, the book is a rich repository with eighty-one chapters and four sections that move from reproduction to pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. The authors’ understanding of material culture is expansive enough to comprise neonatal incubators, whose history as the subject of sideshow-adjacent events is examined, and the placenta, included for its symbolic role in many cultures. Part textbook, oral history, and coffee table book, the catalog successfully unites its disparate functions. The staccato nature of the short but incisive chapters makes it a useful compendium for undergraduate courses in design. The history is enlivened through the contributions of many different voices, including Erica Çhidi, the cofounder of reproductive health platform LOOM, designer Alexis Hope of the MIT Media Lab “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon, and Orkan Telhan, Associate Professor of Emerging Design Practices at the University of Pennsylvania, and powerful visuals, which include family photographs, advertising imagery, and fine art.

In the catalog introduction, Millar Fisher and Winick stress that motherhood is meant to be “expansively understood as noun, verb, and beyond the confines of biology and gender” (14). Yet for all that expansiveness, the show’s definition of motherhood is limited in scope. Foregrounding the word “design” in the title follows in the footsteps of other similar projects such as Alexandra Lange’s 2018 book The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Lange wrote the preface for the Designing Motherhood book) and Amy Ogata’s 2013 Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America (Ogata taught at Bard Graduate Center, where Winnick earned her graduate degree). However, the project’s subtitle—The Things that Make or Break Our Births—is a more accurate reflection of the exhibition’s subject. The exhibition’s focus on the arc of reproduction makes short shrift of those aspects of motherhood that are not ultimately rooted in the biology of reproduction. It also replicates a societal expectation that matrescence, the process of becoming a mother, unfolds over the course of pregnancy and the early months of a child’s life. Once attained, the identity of the mother is perceived as natural as it is unexceptional, with fewer consumer products designed to meet its new challenges and concerns. Throughout the exhibition, the mother as an individual gradually slips off the radar, as objects related to the birthing person become replaced with objects catering to the care of the child. In an exhibition on motherhood the entirety of this identity arc should be given equal attention, showcasing menopause and menstruation in equal measure. An exhibition of this scale cannot be all-encompassing, yet a more precise title could have sidestepped this issue.

At times, the exhibition and catalog lapse into conventional design history rhetoric, exhibiting a focus on form, innovation, and the elevation of individual designers. It is perhaps to Designing Motherhood’s advantage that there was a lack of traditional institutional support at its outset. Hesitance on the side of fine arts museums to commit to the idea led to an involvement with local activists and groups such as the Philadelphia-based Maternity Care Coalition (MCC), a nonprofit organization that aims to improve health outcomes of reproductive decisions through providing access to resources and a range of expertise. These collaborations are the source of the project’s vitality. It is in these on-the-ground moments—the public programing, the ephemera and found imagery, the glimpses into oral histories, and particularly the use of anecdote as method—that the project shines and the intricate person-object intertwinement is best illuminated. A particularly powerful moment is the catalog pairing of a discussion on the Dalkon Shield IUD with an interview with pioneering reproductive justice activist Loretta J. Ross, who suffered forced sterilization due to an infection caused by the device. Designing Motherhood is most persuasive at this point of contact between material culture, individual, and community, as it opens the door for future curators, designers, and audiences to engage with the different and occasionally contradictory histories of birthing. On these grounds it makes an appeal to design a better future for all who mother.

Dora Vanette
PhD candidate, University of Southern California