Designing Motherhood: The Things that Make and Break Our Births is an exhibition series which opened last year in two museums in Philadelphia (United States) and now a book (order here). We are very lucky to have sat down with Michelle Millar Fisher and Juliana Rowen Barton, both design historians and and two of the curators of Designing Motherhood (alongside team members Amber Winick, Zoë Greggs, and Gabriella Nelson) to learn more about this groundbreaking project.
Casimira Melican: The Designing Motherhood website describes the project as, “A first-of-its-kind consideration of the arc of human reproduction through the lens of design.” When did you realise that cycling and reproductive bodies had not been seriously considered through the lens of design? Was this realisation the starting point for conceiving (mind the pun!) this project?
M&J:Well, the first thing we should say is that we are here on behalf of a really wonderful team, and we can’t describe everybody’s first realization of the world not really being designed for their cycling and reproductive bodies. What we love about this project is that everybody has their own entry story into it. The DM project started properly way back in 2015 when I (Michelle) met Amber, my cofounder and a fellow design historian, at a baby shower I hosted at my house. We met again just over a year later at a dinner party, started talking about why we never saw design for the arc of human reproduction in the classes we’d taken and were now teaching, or in the museums in which I was working. Nowhere in our design survey textbooks or in museum collections were any objects that told the stories of reproduction or birth, the life and death and joy and difficulty of it all, in all of its complexity. We wanted to change that, and the rest is history. We knew we wanted to write a book, got plenty of rejections along the way, and slowly built a team of people who very brilliantly brought the project to life outside of some of the usual channels we might have taken for any other exhibition and publication. We partnered with the amazing Maternity Care Coalition (MCC), a 40-year-old organization based in Philadelphia that advocates for better maternal and infant health outcomes through a range of innovative services including at home visits.
CM: At Chalice Foundation we are particularly interested in items connected to menstruation like menstrual cups. How do you see the menstrual taboo and stigma play out through the design of these items? [eg. has there been a lack of interest in ensuring the design works for many people, is safe for our bodies, is affordable etc.]
M&J: It’s often not the design of these items that perpetuates menstrual taboo, but the ways in which such designs have been marketed. This is changing in some ways, but there is still a deep rooted sense of shame in many cases. For example, I will still get asked if I need a bag for my purchase of a menstrual product— i’ve had it happen in stores from Brooklyn, New York to Lagos, Nigeria—with the implication being that I need to cover it up rather than walk out of the store openly as I would with any other box of crackers or detergent or anything else I might get from the pharmacy or grocery. Historically, menstrual products have been marketed in print and television advertising using blue liquid instead of red blood, and the efficacy of menstrual products has been underscored by messages that they “keep you from having an accident“ or “keep clothing pristine“ as if a period stain is the most embarrassing situation one can find oneself in. Some cultures suggest that women are “unclean” during this time of their menstrual cycle. While it is sincerely important to respect differences in culture, there is no part of having a period that makes somebody unclean. People with periods have started to challenge these messages over the last decade or so, and so it’s the framing of the Conversation as much as the innovations in design that have made a difference. One of our favorite designs, the menstrual cup, has not markedly changed in some decades in terms of its design. But, new generations are coming to it because of its environmental qualities of reuse.
CM: What response have you received so far from the exhibition?
M&J: The responses to the exhibitions (we have two, one at the Center for Architecture, in Philadelphia, closed on Nov 13 and the other at the Mutter Museum, in the same city, closing May 9, 2022) have been phenomenal, beyond our wildest dreams. People have sent us pictures of taking their mom or their daughters or sons of all ages and stages or their classmates through the shows. People have sent very heartfelt messages about the freedom they feel upon seeing topics that matter to them out in the open, or learning about design histories of the everyday objects that they have used for forever. In the case of both the book and the exhibition, we have had such kind media coverage supporting the project, urging people to pick up the book or go to the show. After having our project rejected for so long in the early years of its life, it has been so gratifying to have confirmed what we knew all along, that there is an audience for these ideas, and this audience is excited to see the project finally come to life, because everyone is connected in someway to designs that shape our births. Everyone has been born.
CM: What are the key recommendations you would make to designers, and those making design decisions, regarding promoting menstrual wellbeing and a positive reproductive culture?
M&J: One of the most important things is to open this up as a discussion for innovation, consideration, and careful reflection in the places where designers are trained. That’s why we have created a Designing Motherhood curriculum which we have tested out over the last year at the University of Pennsylvania with two cohorts of brilliant students and a fantastic collaborator, Professor Orkan Telhan. We are just collecting that material and getting it ready to go online, and it will be an open source way for faculty to bring this conversation to the students so that from the very earliest formation, designers consider the arc of human reproduction, and things like menstruation, as valid and exciting spaces of inquiry from the very start of their careers. We also feel very strongly that simply talking about the need for design innovation for widely shared experiences like menstruation normalizes the topic, and that makes it much more approachable and lowers the barrier to engagement.