Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births


Birth is the way we all arrive in this world. And each of us has, or will at some stage in the future, repeat, prevent, rethink, or reject that process of reproduction. As we do, we’ll interact with designs of all kinds—tools, techniques, systems, and customs—to make and break these cycles.  

Design impacts each step in the arc of human reproduction, from the intrauterine device that prevents the process of fertilizing an egg, to the midwife who advocates for culturally appropriate care or the breast pump flange that helps produce, gather, and store breast milk.

But who shapes these designs? Some of the objects and systems you’ll encounter in this exhibition are the product of medical knowledge that was once guarded, like the forceps, while others have been shaped by dire need and collective political will, like the at-home abortion kit and women’s health zines. Still others have been conceived by feminist engineers frustrated at the lack of innovation in designs for reproductive health, such as the twenty-first-century silicone pessary.

While being born is a universal human experience, the designs that shape it are not. Many remain taboo, rarely considered, and inaccessible to many. Designing Motherhood invites you to consider why and how we have developed designs to facilitate reproductive health, and to ponder the political, economic, and social implications of how we medicalize reproduction. These are not just women’s issues. They are human issues. They matter to us all.

This exhibition was organized as a collaboration between the Designing Motherhood curatorial team, the Mütter Museum, and thought leaders Maternity Care Coalition, a direct-service organization that ensures families can birth with dignity, parent with autonomy, and raise babies who are healthy, growing, and thriving.


Header photo: Maternity Care Coalition staff serving their clients in Philadelphia, 1980s. Courtesy of MCC and the University of Pennsylvania Library Archives (MSColl760, Box 44, Folder 56)

Top left: “Four Generations” from the series Mother: A Collective Portrait, 1997. Photo by and courtesy of Mary Motley Kalergis

Top right: Ryan Mario Yasin’s Petit Pli garments that grow with their young wearers. Image courtesy Petit Pli

Middle: Dalkon Shield (far left) intrauterine device used in the early 1970s and 1980s and produced by the A.H. Robins Company in the US. It caused an array of severe injuries, including pelvic infection, infertility, unintended pregnancy, and death. Eventually the US Food and Drug Administration banned the device. Image courtesy the Mütter Museum

Bottom left: Children played a highly visible role in demonstrations for affordable child care in New York City. Photo by Bettye Lane, August 20, 1974. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Bottom right: Zapatista mothers breastfeeding, 2006. Photo by and courtesy of Bernardo de Niz


This exhibition is part of a larger project envisioned and facilitated by Maternity Care Coalition, who ensure families can birth with dignity, parent with autonomy, and raise babies who are healthy, growing, and thriving. Major support for Designing Motherhood has been provided to Maternity Care Coalition by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Additional support has been provided to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Groff Family Memorial Trust. 

The Mütter Museum helps the public appreciate the mysteries and beauty of the human body while understanding the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.

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