In a post-deer world, an exhibit dedicated to reproduction is more relevant than ever – WBUR News | Candle Made Easy

Years before the Supreme Court ruled to end state abortion law, a team of curators began creating a treasure trove exploring the history of human reproduction. Now 200 objects are on display at the Mass Art Art Museum (MAAM) in a massive exhibition that feels more urgent than ever.

Entering the gleaming white gallery on Huntington Avenue, you are confronted with ordinary inventions that we don’t typically see in a museum. Tampons, diaphragms, pregnancy tests, baby monitors and breast pumps are thoughtfully arranged and contextualized through the design lens.

“Everyone comes here by birth, and this material culture is often incredibly taboo,” explained Michelle Millar Fisher. “I never found it in the design textbooks I was taught.”

Millions of people regularly use objects related to reproduction, but we rarely talk about them. Millar Fisher has co-curated this exhibition, Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births (on view until December 18), with other design historians, birth advocates, medical and midwifery experts to encourage open conversation.

Jess Dugan, “Vanessa and Jess with Elinor (2 days old),” 2018. (Courtesy of the artist/MassArt Art Museum)

The show was hard fought. And it will take a long time. As of 2017, Millar Fisher and co-curator Amber Winick tried to persuade publishers to take their idea for an in-depth book on the subject seriously. They also took their thesis to museum curators.

“They denounced this as a women’s issue or a niche issue,” Millar Fisher recalled. “And for us, designing across the human reproductive arc – contraception, as well as conception, pregnancy, birth and childbirth – is really something that touches everyone.”

“Design objects are often asked to explain themselves in museums or exhibitions,” added co-curator Juliana Rowen Barton. “They are not necessarily considered for their beauty or shape. We have fashion and graphic design objects, but we also understand design as systems, guidelines and technologies.”

The team’s efforts paid off last year when the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia unveiled the Curators’ Hidden History collection. Now at MAAM menstrual cups and IUDs are presented on an equal footing with contemporary art, photography, videos, old books and lots of careful research.

Three IUDs and intracervical devices from 1935-1982 on display in
Three IUDs and intracervical devices from 1935–1982 on display in “Designing Motherhood”. (Courtesy of Constance Mensh/ The Mutter Museum)

Each element and the dialogues created between them raise critical, emotionally charged questions about who was engineered and controlled for reproductive health throughout history.

“We’re standing in a part of the exhibit that deals with pelvic exams and reproductive devices,” said Millar Fisher, immersing us in the show’s non-linear narrative, “and of course the really famous and important ‘Our Bodies’, Our Movement, which started in Boston.”

"Our bodies, ourselves"  second edition, 1973. (Courtesy Our Bodies, Ourselves/Photo by Erik Gould)
Our Bodies, Ourselves, Second Edition, 1973. (Courtesy of Our Bodies, Ourselves/Photo by Erik Gould)

A 1973 edition of the self-published feminist book by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective talks in part about how capitalism, sexuality, gender identity, and medicine intersect. It’s steps from a nearby wall exhibit that features a replica of a speculum from ancient Pompeii.

Then there’s the now iconic version, designed by infamous surgeon J. Marion Sims. In the mid-18th century he experimented with enslaved black women, and an adaptation of the Sims speculum – as it is known – is still commonly used today. Millar Fisher said some modern practitioners reject this moniker, instead referring to the object as the Lucy speculum to honor one of Sims’ vulnerable test subjects.

People with vaginas know how uncomfortable this rigid, cold, stainless steel instrument feels inside their bodies. But there is also a new innovation here called Yona.

It is made of silicone and can be heated before insertion. Miller Fisher said the two women who made it continue to expand the use of the tool.

“Like so many contemporary designers, they think about the words and the processes that are happening in that moment of pelvic examination,” she said. “Both the provider and the customer are encouraged to have a conversation that is trauma-informed, that is, LGBTQ-informed, that really speaks to some kind of systemic rethinking of design, rather than just through a new product.”

The Del Em Device, a vacuum abortion set used in the 1960s and 70s before Roe v.  Wade came into effect.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Del-Em device, a vacuum abortion kit used in the 1960s and ’70s before Roe v. Wade came into effect. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Many of the devices here are plot items. Millar Fisher points to a postpartum self-examination mirror and a home-sent cervical swab test drawn up during the pandemic in the UK. Then we stop at a humble DIY device in a display case. The Del-Em can be traced back to a self-help clinic in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“You have a mason jar — something that would hold jam or something like that in your pantry,” Millar Fisher said, describing the jar. A clear tube runs from the top of a yellow plastic cap to a simple syringe.

“These kits were used by people across the country before Roe v. Wade made, and they were made to allow abortions to take place at home and in safe houses,” she said. “They were directed by women and made by women for other women who needed them. They were often done without anesthesia – in fact, most of the time they were always done without anesthesia – so they could move very quickly if someone was searching the house.”

When the curatorial team tracked down this abortion kit a few years ago, they considered it a historical curiosity. “It seems really frighteningly prescient now,” Millar Fisher said. “We hope it stays under glass and doesn’t need to be recirculated.”

Tabitha Soren,
Tabitha Soren, “The Month I Could Walk Without Peeing on Myself,” 2007. (Courtesy of the artist and the MassArt Art Museum)

The show also examines larger issues related to the labor required to raise a child and how childcare is valued — if at all. “It’s about socio-economic justice. It’s about racial justice,” she said. “We know there are massive racial disparities in maternal and child health outcomes in this country.”

A glossary on the wall defines terms like medical racism, reproductive justice, and even motherhood that transcends gender or labor.

For MAAM executive director Lisa Tung, “Designing Motherhood” captures the tense but beautiful scope of human reproduction in a way only an art museum exhibition can.

“The show brings these designs together — some of them are really beautiful, some of them are really scary,” she said. “Most of them were developed by people without a uterus to be used on people with a uterus.”

JEB (Joan E Biren),
JEB (Joan E. Biren), “Denyeta with her daughter Darquita”, 1979. (Courtesy of the artist)

And Tung is hoping for the students who visit the galleries at MAAM, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s teaching museum.

“We’re a design school, tomorrow’s designers come from mass art,” she said, “and if they can see what’s missing and design this new thing in a human and compassionate way, what could be better?”

Following the Supreme Court decision to end abortion rights, Tung believes MAAM’s role as an institution that is also free to the public is vital. The stakes are high, but when it comes to reproductive rights for all, co-curator Michelle Millar Fisher said they always have been.

“And if we’re not careful, many of the issues we face now will be decided for us and not by us.”

Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break our Birth is on display at the Mass Art Art Museum through December 18.

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