In its first installation in more than two years, the Mass Art Art Museum (MAAM) is now presenting Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births, in the Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery on the museum’s ground floor.
The exhibition, which started at the Mütter Museum and the Center for Architecture and Design in Philadelphia in partnership with the Maternity Care Coalition, has made its way to Boston in partnership with the Neighborhood Birth Center (NBC). The NBC is expected to open in Boston next year “as Boston’s first independent and freestanding birth center,” according to the Designing Motherhood team.
The exhibition was created by curator and historian Michelle Millar Fisher and design historian Amber Winick, but many other hands have made this project possible, including curator Juliana Rowen Barton, PhD, artist and non-profit coordinator Zoë Greggs, and mother and city planner Gabriella Nelson.
“Designing Motherhood explores the arc of human reproduction through the lens of design and art from the 19th century to the present day,” according to a press release.
The exhibition fills the gallery with various objects and artifacts related to birth and motherhood, which are split into 10 different sections in chronological order beginning with Exam, then moving on to Means of Reproduction, Our Bodies Ourselves, Parturition, Postpartum, Milk, Midwives, Temporary Bodies, Spaces, and Monitoring.
More than 200 works are on display, including baby monitors, breast pumps, maternity clothes, contraception options, speculums, photographs, and videos, among others.
Photography from artist Jess T. Dugan is on display, depicting their partner Vanessa and daughter Elinor two days after she was born.
“The portrait captures a moment when both were exhausted but elated, like many new parents,” according to exhibit information.
“In Jess’ words, ‘I’m interested in documenting my own family and also creating representations of queer and gender expansive families and butch/transmasculine parenting.’”
The exhibit also features artist and woodworker Alison Croney Moses’ wooden sculpture depicting her pregnant belly, called My Belly, which is part of her series My Black Body.
“Our bodies are literally rearranged, torn apart, and drained while growing humans within our womb, birthing those humans, sustaining those lives, and nurturing those tiny people in the critical years of development,” Croney Moses said in information about the exhibition. She talked about the changes mothers go through during this process and returning to a new version of who they are.
“For Black mothers, this transformation occurs while living through systemic racism and personal implicit bias all made worse due to COVID 19. Our physical survival of the birthing process and living is what we are tasked with as humans. The ability to care for ourselves, to celebrate, and to commune with each other is what we need to thrive.”
This exhibition was created 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,” the curatorial team said in a statement. “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.’”
Juliana Rowen Barton told the Gazette that she joined this project in 2020, when the “pandemic shed a stark light on the childcare crisis.”
She said she met Michelle Millar Fisher in Philadelphia, and “they couldn’t get rid of me.”
Rowen Barton said that the exhibit installation took about two weeks and many hands, including those of student workers, to ensure each of the more than 200 works were placed exactly right. “It was a collaborative effort,” she said.
Michelle Millar Fisher said that although this show is “timely” with recent current events in the country and in the world, “it’s also cyclical,” she said. The exhibit is an “expression in this moment in time.”
Bethany Serota of the NBC explained that “people should have access to a full range of birth care and options,” and that NBC has a video about their work as part of this exhibition and will also be providing programming this fall. The NBC is a non-profit headed by Black and Brown folks, and will feature a staff of licensed midwives and three birthing suites.
“Everyone should see this show,” Lisa Tung, Executive and Artistic Director of MAAM, told reporters at a preview event. “We are all born. It’s a shared universal experience…”
A 344-page book called Designing Motherhood is also a part of this project and was published by MIT Press. MAAM said that “a rich set of public programs is being planned, including connections between the exhibit content and MassArt curriculum” as well.
Designing Motherhood is on display at MAAM until December 18. Admission is free, and the museum is open from 12-8pm on Thursdays, 12-5pm on Fridays, and 10am-5pm on Saturdays. The museum no longer requires advance tickets.
MAAM is located at 621 Huntington Ave. For more information, visit maam.massart.edu.