Motherhood — that most basic rite of passage upon which the survival of the species depends — should be considered necessitous enough to qualify as the mother of invention. And it very likely does, producing countless brainchildren, but there’s no mainstream design history to prove it.
The Victoria & Albert Museum has an early 20th-century breast pump, but it’s not on display. None of the handful of historic maternity-wear pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (including a late-1800s silk burgundy gown with ample belly room) are on view, either. Objects like contraceptives, menstrual products, at-home abortion kits, and baby monitors (including the chic ones designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi) are central to the system that delivers us all here. But they’re rarely, if ever, studied in design history curricula, let alone exhibited by museums that might retain them.
“Museum collections, fashion and design exhibitions, the mainstream of design scholarship, and many public forums have yet to fully embrace maternity as a topic worthy of serious inquiry,” reads the introduction to Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births (2021). The book aims to fill that void, and accompanies a current exhibition of the same name at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.
Designing Motherhood has been a project in the works for years, predated by an Instagram account led by design historians Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick that aggregates objects related to maternity. The newly released book includes over 100 objects spanning medical devices to depictions of laboring women in films, and includes contributors from a range of fields and experiences.
Leafing through this reproductive smorgasbord is an exercise in saying, “Hey, I had one of those,” or “I’d never do that” (I’m thinking specifically of the saccharine spectacle that is the gender-reveal cake). Anyone who has ever menstruated or ever will menstruate (regardless of whether or not they choose to have a child) can likely find something relatable in its diverse pages.
The book reaches all the way back to a speculum found in the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii, then returns to the present day with some far-ranging and fascinating objects. It covers the late 19th-century practice of taking posed postmortem daguerreotypes of stillborn babies, who were dressed and placed in sleeping positions, for example. The Finnish Äitiyspakkaus, a cardboard box full of baby items, originally created by modernist designers during the interwar period, is also included as a unique artifact that has become embedded in Finnish culture. (As a special design feature, the box itself functions as a bassinet and has been cited as a reason why Finland has a low rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.)
Designing Motherhood discusses the sari, an iconic Indian dress that is adaptable and takes expanding and contracting bodies into account. And the book covers the design history of home pregnancy tests, a revolutionary invention by New York-based graphic designer Margaret Crane, which radically transferred power from the doctor’s office to the home user and was an important step in granting women more agency in choosing how (and if) to proceed. A prototype of Crane’s patented Predictor, an instantly sought after test released in the late 1960s, was acquired in 2015 by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (where it is, predictably, not currently on view).
Fisher and Winick said that some of the objects for their exhibition were easier to find than others. Etsy and eBay were frequently the source of treasures, such as a classic Maclaren stroller and an authentic vintage Tassette menstrual cup. Historic personal hygiene products are tricky, given that they’re unlikely to be kept for posterity. “We’d long given up hope that we’d get our hands on one of these so you can imagine the enthusiasm expressed via text and the speed at which we bought this beautiful object,” the Designing Motherhood curatorial team shared with Hyperallergic. “We’re thrilled to put it on display with a few more recent menstrual cup designs.”
Though many think of the menstrual cup as a modern device, it was first conceived in 1867 by American inventor S. L. Hockert, and the first commercially available one was designed in 1935 by former Broadway actress Leona Watson.
Gathering the objects for the Designing Motherhood book and exhibition was clearly a laborious effort, and the end result feels something like an heirloom trunk containing a jumble of things that either look vaguely familiar or curiously foreign. “Motherhood was a field hiding in plain sight,” writes design critic Alexandra Lange in the book’s foreword, “obscured by its own ubiquity and sidelined by everyday sexism.” The curators hope this project will be a corrective design history-in-progress, one that opens the trunk and inspires further study.
Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births continues at the Mütter Museum (19 South 22nd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through May 2022. The exhibition is curated by Michelle Millar Fisher, Amber Winick, Juliana Rowen Barton, Zoë Greggs, and Gabriella Nelson.
The publication, Designing Motherhood: That that Make and Break Our Births by Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick (2021), is published by MIT Press and is available online and in bookstores.
Saudi Arabia Announces $1M “Freedom of Expression” Art Award
Kanye West, Roman Polanski, and Carl Andre are among the shortlisted artists.
British Museum Offers Greece “Exclusive NFT” of the Parthenon Marbles
“With the power of blockchain technology, there will be no question who the real owner is,” said a British Museum spokesperson.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
MoMA to Co-Curate Exhibition With NYPD
Arrest Me, Daddy hopes to cast a more positive light on the work of law enforcement officers.
Repatriation-Inspired Fragrance Line Hopes to Heal Collector Wounds
The exotic scents of the Rapatriement line offer solace and joy to dismayed collectors who were forced to return looted artifacts.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Prince Harry to Star in New Van Gogh Biopic
The estranged prince said he took the role to raise awareness of mental health issues.
Vatican Partners With Balenciaga on “Spiritual” Menswear Line
A spokesperson for the church cited “shared values” with the fashion brand.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
Iran Issues Fatwa Against AI
A reinterpretation of the Quran through a queer lens, written by an AI chatbot, is said to cause the move.
Met Gala Announces 2023 “Looting and Plunder” Theme
Select A-list guests will be invited to wear any artifacts from the museum’s collection that have not yet been seized by the Manhattan DA’s office.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Florida School Censors Madonna and Child; Calls It “Assault on Family Values”
The school said the Virgin Mary in the painting “doesn’t look happy enough” about experiencing the joy of motherhood. Governor Ron DeSantis applauded the move.
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Finally Spicing Up
In the penultimate episode, the show’s editors managed to ignite the spark of mindless reality TV.