Birth. One way or another, we all got here that way. But our experiences of birth are not equal, stuck as they have been in traditionally gendered narratives of parenthood and unbalanced by racial and socio-economic disparities in access to care.
The new exhibit Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births, opening on February 16 at the Bill & Melinda Gates Discovery Center, casts a discerning eye on the last 150 years of birthing and the material culture that have surrounded it.
Organized by design historians, birth advocates and medical and midwifery history experts, the exhibit explores the arc of human reproduction through the lens of design and art from the 19th century to the present day. An advisory committee made up of local birth and postpartum experts helped center curators execute the Seattle exhibit and the works of a handful of local artists, scientists and other creators are represented here.
The Gates Foundation brought the show to Seattle because it illustrates a core part of the foundation’s work to improve health outcomes for children around the globe, center curators said.
“Supporting women and girls, focusing on maternal and newborn child health and on gender equality is pivotal to the foundation’s work,” said Sarah Bloom, the Gates Foundation Discovery Center’s curator of exhibitions. “And it’s very apt that this exhibition has expanded in its Seattle version to include a global health lens (with) over 20 objects and innovations that the foundation has funded.” Among those innovations funded by the foundation and developed by PATH, Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington is the NIFTY Cup, a silicone feeding cup which allows lactating parents to express mill and feed infants with cleft palates without the cross contamination that can happen with moving milk to multiple storage containers.
Bloom also pointed out that Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest is a leader in global health innovation and maternal health improvements and is home to a very large community of birth educators, advocates, midwives, and doulas, some of whom offered their experience and expertise to design of the show. Seattle is home to doula and childbirth education pioneer and author Penny Simkin, PT and the Seattle Midwifery School, one of the nation’s first community midwifery training programs. Seattle Midwifery School merged with Bastyr University in 2009 to become one of the first Masters in Midwifery degrees in the nation.
The objects that influence birth
Designing Motherhood features more than 200 objects and centers on experiences of fertility and infertility, pregnancy, postpartum, and parenthood. Along the way it demonstrates the evolution of rights and societal norms pertaining to contraception, pregnancy, birth and the months after a baby is born. Many providers in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest have pushed in the past and continue to push for race and gender equity in all birth settings .
Exhibit to run for nearly a year
Designing Motherhood runs through December 30. Staff at the The Gates Discovery Center say this long exhibit window will allow them to engage with visitors in numerous ways around the objects and topics that are part o the exhibit over the next months.
“The objects in the exhibition tell complex, rich, and important stories that impact each one of us,” said Bloom.
“We will also highlight the incredible communities we have right here in the Seattle region that have contributed to developments and innovation in culturally responsive care and design, Bloom said. “I’m excited to have this exhibition on view for a year, giving us the opportunity to connect more deeply with the Seattle community and our visitors on all facets of our lives that the show touches on.”
Not just a women’s issue
According to exhibit designers, this examination of one of the most fundamental experiences in life started in 2017. The project aims to confront the large gap around this topic in historic collections and classrooms.
“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,’” the team wrote in an exhibit announcement.
Designing Motherhood originated in Philadelphia at the Mütter Museum and the Center for Architecture and Design. The curatorial team partnered for three years with the pioneering Maternity Care Coalition, a group that has worked since 1980 to empower families navigating reproductive health, pregnancy, and early childhood in that city.
Visit the Gates Foundation Discovery Center
Located next to Seattle Center and the headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gates Foundation Discovery Center was developed to connect people to relevant topics, stories and resources to inspire action in Seattle and beyond. Open Thursdays – Saturdays, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. FREE. For information, go to discovergates.org.