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New ‘Designing Motherhood’ Exhibit Opens at the Gates Foundation Discovery Center

Exhibit explores the tools and designs surrounding our births

Published on: February 16, 2023

A Finnish "baby box" given to new parents in Finland is on display at Seattle's Gates Foundation Discovery Center new exhibit called Designing Motherhood, things that make and break our births
A Scottish baby box is among the items on display in the Gates Foundation Discovery Center’s exhibit “Designing Motherhood.” Credit: Nancy Chaney

Who should go see an exhibit on birth and motherhood?

Mothers, yes.

But also uncles. Early childhood educators. Siblings. Fathers. Aunts. Someone who lost a pregnancy. Midwives and doulas. A child-free person. It’s not an exhibit only for mothers. If you haven’t given birth, someone gave birth to you.

At the interactive baby-wearing station, try a doll in three different baby carriers and take a look in the mirror
At the interactive baby-wearing station, try a doll in three different baby carriers and take a look in the mirror. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births,” a new exhibit at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center, opened today and is on view through Dec. 30.

Situated across the street from the Seattle Center, the Gates Foundation Discovery Center is free and open to the public, Thursday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Designing Motherhood Egnell SMB Breast Pump, c. 1956
Egnell SMB Breast Pump, c. 1956. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

The trappings of birth

“Designing Motherhood” includes some 200 objects around human reproduction and maternal and newborn health, including historical artifacts, works of art and Gates Foundation–funded innovations. Some of the items come from museum collections (historic nipple shields) and some come from eBay (a DialPak pill dispenser, circa 2001).

Designing Motherhood Co-curator Juliana Rowen Barton leads a tour through the exhibit
Exhibit co-curator Juliana Rowen Barton leads a tour. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

“We think this exhibit is for everyone,” says Juliana Rowen Barton, one of the exhibit’s five co-curators. “Everyone has been born. That’s a fact. You don’t have to have a uterus to learn or feel connected to the issues.”

The exhibit covers conception, contraception, pregnancy, birth and postpartum experiences. It’s intense.

Designing Motherhood Gates Discovery Center baby placenta and pelvis model
Infant, placenta and pelvis models on display in “Designing Motherhood.” Credit: Nancy Chaney

There’s a content advisory placard at the beginning of the exhibit. The artifacts include speculums, forceps, an IUD inserter — things that made my uterus hurt just looking at them. Bring your child when you’re ready to talk about these big (and important!) issues. In Seattle Public Schools, fifth-graders are taught a family life and sexual health curriculum, so that’s a starting point.

“Knowledge is power,” notes Rowen Barton. “Better they have the correct information, they have an understanding of how their bodies work, and how other people’s bodies work.”

The path of the exhibit

The special exhibit starts at the base of the ramp at the entrance to the visitor center. You’ll see a second-edition copy of the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (from back when the book cost 30 cents) and a nude self-portrait by artist Deborah Willis from when she was pregnant.

DIY del em abortion device on display at Gates Foundation Discovery Center Designing Motherhood exhibit
A homemade abortion device. Credit: Nancy Chaney

There’s an early abortion device engineered with easy-to-find parts: a Mason jar, a syringe and tubing purchased from an aquarium supply store.

Continuing up the ramp leads to a large room with a curvy table winding through the space like an umbilical cord. You’ll see a replica of a speculum used in Pompeii (A.D. 79); a Scottish baby box packed with baby clothes and supplies is designed to give every child in Scotland an equal start to life; and a breast pump from 1879, the first where the design was based on human anatomy, not bovine.

Designing Motherhood Replica of speculum from Pompeii, AD 79, from Mutter Museum
Replica of speculum from Pompeii, A.D. 79, from Mutter Museum. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

In the third and final space, the theater room, infographics leaning against the wall bear grim statistics. The United States is the only country with an advanced economy where maternal mortality is getting worse.

Exhibit background

“Designing Motherhood” originated in Philadelphia, where it opened in 2021. For its Seattle run, 20 objects funded by the Gates Foundation were added. (You can tell by the subtle gray border around those items.)

Designing Motherhood Gates Foundation-funded NeoNatalie doll teaches infant resuscitation
The Gates Foundation–funded NeoNatalie doll teaches infant resuscitation. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel 

The purpose of these innovations is to expand care to low-resource places. One example is a silicone cup designed by a craniofacial surgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital, so mothers can express milk for premature babies and babies born with cleft palates. Another is the NeoNatalie, a low-cost simulator doll for training health-care workers on how to do infant resuscitation.

Gates Foundation-funded NIFTY Cup, 2014, for expressing milk to preterm and babies with cleft palates
Gates Foundation–funded NIFTY Cup, 2014, designed to feed preterm babies and babies with cleft palates. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

There’s a lot of information to digest here. Take a break and try baby-wearing at an interactive station outfitted with a doll and three different kinds of carriers.

There’s also a real-life infographic you can participate in: Place a dot on the wall to mark how much paid or unpaid parental leave you received. On opening day, someone had already placed a dot at “23 weeks paid.” Wow. What a unicorn of an experience.

Add a sticker to the wall to indicate how much paid or unpaid parental leave you received
Add a sticker to the wall to indicate how much paid or unpaid parental leave you received. Credit: Nancy Chaney

If someone in your party gets really wiggly, you can head to the last room at the top of the ramp, where there are some Magna-Tiles, Tegu blocks and interactive screens.

If you go ...

When: Designing Motherhood” runs through Dec. 30 at the Gates Foundation Discovery Center, open Thursday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., first Thursday hours extend to 7 p.m.

Where: 440 Fifth Avenue North, Seattle, across the street from the east side of Seattle Center, near Memorial Stadium.

Cost: Free

Getting there: There’s a surface lot at Seattle Center, directly across Fifth Avenue, as well as parking garages nearby. For public transit, take the Monorail to the Seattle Center or Metro bus route 3 and 4.

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