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Designing Motherhood

A walk through the Designing Motherhood exhibit.

Pictured are Maternity Care Coalition staff serving their clients in Philadelphia in the 1980s. Photo by Jerry Millevoi. Courtesy of MCC and the University of Pennsylvania Library Archives

“Why are we in here?” the little girl standing next to me asks loudly of her comparably small friend. Before she can receive an answer, the curly haired child exclaims, “what’s that?!” The pair are hovering over a glass case that houses some formidable looking forceps and more importantly for the moment: silicone vulva models demonstrating various stages of perineal repairs. 

“That’s a private part!” she gasps. Remaining silent for a moment, the girl then flees to the gift shop. We are standing in the Designing Motherhood exhibit at the Mutter Museum in Center City, which displays objects related to pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding from across the centuries.

The showcased anatomy models remind me of being in a sex toy shop. You know how there’s always the one floor model of a Fleshlight that is slightly discolored and worn away from customers who have tested the verisimilitude of the fake skin? These encased pink replicas are not discolored from touch, but definitely look like they’ve … been through it. One depicts a vulva and vaginal opening torn down nearly to the anus, the kind of injury that can come from childbirth. Another one shows only a slight tear, another appears to be generally intact.

The lingering girl suddenly and silently points up to the wall next to me. Many seconds pass before she implores aloud, “mom, what’s that?” Turning to see a video of a simulated perineal repair surgery, the mother pauses thoughtfully and replies, “that’s showing a surgery on a woman who just gave birth. They’re sewing her back up where she was torn.” This answer appears to satisfy the girl and soon the two move on as well.

My favorite part of the Designing Motherhood exhibit was the people watching. Couples and small groups moved quietly through the small room, speaking in hushed tones to each other as they came across ancient pessaries (devices inserted into the vagina to support the organs and prevent prolapse), wireless breast pumps, and beautifully displayed IUDs. 

“That’s the one I have,” whispers a woman to her presumable boyfriend, pointing at the Mirena intrauterine device, a popular form of long-term hormonal birth control. “Is there a book that tells you how to get it out?” he asks. She laughs and replies, “I don’t take it out.” 

Demystifying the process of reproduction and raising awareness of the need for technological advancements that center the person giving birth, Designing Motherhood proves itself immensely vital through these visitor conversations.

Most of us do not get the opportunity to learn the gritty details of childbirth, even if we received a generally good sex education. 

Someone might have had a child and still not be familiar with all the objects showcased in this exhibit, much less understand their place in history. For example: few of us get to really examine a speculum, the device used to investigate bodily orifices (like in a pelvic exam), even if we have experienced them directly in a doctor’s office.

In this exhibit, viewers can gaze upon a 19th century replica of a speculum that would have been used in first century Pompeii, alongside more modern and comfortable-looking iterations. It made me feel incredibly lucky to be alive today and hopeful for the vagina-havers of the future.

Designing Motherhood is a much bigger project than the single room at the Mutter. Not only is the second half located across town at the Center for Architecture and Design, it’s also a large, highly illustrated book,  a series of public programs, design curriculum, and Storybanking project.  On their website, Designing Motherhood is described as “an equity centered and community design approach to advocate for a future where caregivers can birth with dignity, parent with autonomy, and raise babies who are healthy, growing, and thriving.” I consider it a vital piece of public health education.

For those interested in visiting, I highly recommend scanning the QR code at the entrance of the exhibit or grabbing one of the handful of gallery guides that describe the items of the collection. Wall plaques name the objects in each case, but don’t provide context or explanation. Without pulling up the online gallery guide, visitors are largely left to their own imaginations. 

“That one looks like the light in my bathroom,” says a woman to her friends as they gather over a case of pessaries. “That one looks like a clown nose,” says her friend. I’m curious if they are familiar with what pessaries do, or that 50 percent of people with vaginas experience pelvic prolapse after the age of 50, according to the online guide brought up by the QR code. It goes on to explain “despite its prevalence, most people don’t hear about prolapse until their diagnosis.” 

Despite my own significant sex education, there was a lot of new information for me in this exhibit, further driving home the need for it. I’m really hopeful that people check it out… and that the curly haired girl finds the answers to all her questions.

Have a question for Dr. Timaree? Send an email to asktimaree@philadelphiaweekly.com.

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  • Timaree Schmit Headshot

    Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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