Institutional Perspective and Practice of Motherhood: The Case of The Museum of Motherhood

Yang Li – Student Research Paper


Since the second wave of the feminism movement in the last century, motherhood has emerged as a multifaceted topic, especially in the domain of women’s creativity and the wider art industry. For some time, the art world has overlooked the reality of parenthood. Especially after the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the community is confronting greater constraints on art practice and market engagement (Heidenry, 2020). While academics have shed light upon the sophisticated relations between feminism and motherhood for decades, viewing the development of motherhood along with its social impact from an institutional perspective is still in its infancy. There are few cultural and art institutions worldwide that devote efforts to mother studies, family issues and mother-artists. Meanwhile, a considerable gap appears. Limited research focuses on institutional development. In light of these facts, it is necessary to review and evaluate the current institutions and projects relevant to the topic of mothers and families and to redefine their role in developing mother studies, while facilitating diversified social cognition. This essay aims to bridge the gap between mother studies and institutional practice in the real world by two methodologies: literature review and case study, in which the subject is the Museum of Motherhood (hereinafter MOM). The first section reviews general motherhood-feminism studies and motherhood in art, followed by a detailed case study of MOM including exhibitions, scholarship and projects. The author finally identifies the limitations and challenges, recommending a direction for the future. This author also argues that MOM significantly contributes to academic mother studies and a community network by integrating exhibitions and scholarship, collaborating with other institutions and projects.

Literature Reviews

MOM involves more than just exhibition space for mother-centric art and scholarship; it also explores academic and educational studies. In both historic and contemporary contexts, motherhood has always intertwined with feminism, although institutional recognition is often lacking. It is necessary to review previous literature to better understand the academic contributions of MOM.

First and foremost, there is much literature focusing on the relationship of motherhood and feminist movements. Ghosh (2016) defines motherhood as a larger social institution characterized by specific ideologies. He argues that despite the notion of motherhood varying across time, culture, race and social class, the performance of motherhood is frequently cited within the framework of a “patriarchal construction” (Ghosh, 2016, p. 19). The definition echoes the arguments of Pateman (1989) who postulated that the valuation of motherhood was the consequence of patriarchal construction and gender differences.  In light of such arguments, it is understandable that the concept of motherhood has been regarded as one of the central issues to have split the subsequent movements of feminism.

Ghosh (2016, p. 17) argued the term “motherhood” emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, yet as indicated in the research of de Marneffe,  discourse was continuously affected by patriarchal and gender narratives. Nevertheless, since the second half of the nineteenth century, feminist theories began to diversify the notion and categorization of a “woman”, and the rejection of a fixed category for a “mother” began to emerge (Neyer & Bernardi, 2011, p. 167). Consequently, postmodern feminist discourse highlighted the diversity of motherhood, along with its positive impact and strength within women’s multiple identities. This process has been slow. In Samira Kawash’s article for the Chicago Press, New Directions in Motherhood Studies  (2011, p. 979) argued researchers should pay special attention to the dynamics and diverse positions of motherhood. Since that time, others,  including Martha Joy Rose, founder and director of MOM, have asserted that Mother Studies as a field of interrogation should take precedence over Motherhood Studies. Rose argues it is more reflective of the experiences of mothers and not just the institution of family (based on patriarchal constructs). 

Postmodern feminists are credited with broadening the perceptions of various and new forms of motherhood, stating women should re-legitimize their desire for motherhoods, according to de Marneffe (2004). In addition, many authors, including Hewett claim that nowadays people are on the verge of the third (or forth) wave: the new mothers’ movement, which is socially-oriented and based on truly valuing motherhood (Hewett, 2006, p. 36). Much has been done to amplify these diverse discourses, both within the Museum of Motherhood, publishing houses such as Demeter Press, and academic journals such as Mamsie, The Journal of Mother Studies (JourMS), and Jarm (Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community.

Secondly, some scholars view motherhood as a branch of research that is independent of feminism. Birns and Hay’s The Different Faces of Motherhood published in 1988 critically evaluated theoretical approaches to motherhood, and offered an empirical inspection of motherhood in cross-cultural contexts, paying special attention to contemporary American mothers (Attanucci, 1990). Later work Redefining Motherhood: Changing Identities and Patterns (1998) analyzed motherhood through a diverse combination of disciplines such as history, sociology, anthropology and education (Weinbaum, 1999). The combination of plural narratives in this work contributed to mother studies in a way that both mothers and outsider’s voices were examined (Harris, 1998). However, although the book examined mothers engaging in various industries and stressed the importance of negotiation between roles associated with a mothers’ different identities, it overlooked mothers within the creativity industry. In short, such research supports the conclusion that mother studies rests on a precarious position along scholarly margins, where it is indicated to be discontinuous, fragmented, and invisible to mainstream feminist academics (Kawash, 2011, p. 996).

In recent years, some contemporary scholars and artists have focused their expertise on mothers and art. These emerging females strive to diversify their experiences as well as their representations of motherhood. The reflection of the mother’s experience in art has evolved over the centuries, with most depictions being derived from religious and patriarchal constructions. Examples of this include the much used archetype of the Virgin Mary (Gómez-Upegui, 2021) as Holy mother. Despite motherhood in Western art history being considerably influenced by the male gaze, contemporary artists are developing new practices in which the mother’s experience is no longer a monolith. The new trend of motherhood in art coincides with the diversification of feminist dialogue. In the book Reconciling Art and Mothering, Rachel Epp Buller revisited materials of feminist artists in 1970s, and offered an insight into why maternal art has been degraded by art world (Kashef, 2014). Buller included essays written by mother-artists with direct and authentic motherhood experiences (Buller, 2012).

Another book that offers new voice of maternal art through first-person account is Feminist Art and the Maternal by Andrea Liss. The book examines the ways in which mother-artists juxtapose dilemmas, and navigate lived realities, while translating their maternal experiences into creative work (Liss, 2009). Further exposition on such points can be found in the book The M Word: Real Mothers In Contemporary Art, edited by Myrel Chernick and Jennie Klein. These scholars provide both historical and contemporary views of the artistic exploration of motherhood, while also encouraging others to consider how art has influenced motherhood as well as the manner in which motherhood has reimagined artistic creation (Heath, 2013). In short, these books (and others) dealt with the lived challenges of the dual role of mother-artist and have made a significant contribution to the emerging debate of art in motherhood.

At the same time emerging narratives and discussions about individual mother-artists have been expanding, little attention has been given to the institutionalized perception of motherhood in the mainstream art world. Maternal art is still a thorny issue, and it often receives hostile reception from art markets and institutions (Dirgantoro, 2017, p. 143). Work of mother-artists today is still viewed as too soft, personal and sentimental for galleries (Skrzynski, 2012). Furthermore, the potential commodification of these artworks is often alien to curators, collectors and critics in the art market (Sandoval, 2015). Such disparities between artist acknowledgement within the artworld as well as dubious notions on monetary value for mother-centric pieces creates a precarious position within the art world social hierarchy for mother-artists. In accordance with such thoughts, Kawash (2011, p.997) highlights a potential solution to this issue by proposing that both current and future feminists must acknowledge all complexities of mothers, mothering, and motherhood, and ultimately call for the accumulation of institutional resources within society to cultivate mother studies. In this regard, MOM is a paradigmatic institution that utilizes its various resources, bridging the historical with the contemporary, the academic with the popular, and the scientific with the creative. It not only embodies academic feminism and mother studies through exhibition, but also amplifies the fresh voices of mothers through publishing institutional journals.

The Museum of Motherhood

The founder of MOM is Martha Joy Rose, who herself is an artist, musician, entrepreneur and community organizer. She founded MOM in 2003 and two years later assisted in the establishment of the Motherhood Foundation Inc (hereinafter MFI), a certified nonprofit 501c3 organization (MOM, 2021a). Section 501c3 refers to the US Internal Revenue Code, which stipulates that nonprofit organizations exist for charitable purposes can take advantage of federal tax-exempt (Foundation Group, 2021). According to their mission statement, the central goal of MFI is to develop MOM with the goal of becoming a world-class museum and institution catering to mother-created art, education, and motherhood studies (MOM, 2021b). The institution also seeks to celebrate herstory, culture and community, while honoring the collective cultural voice from mothers. Below, this forthcoming case analysis will discuss three central aspects reflected in this mission statement: exhibition, scholarship and projects. With central focus around MOM, other relevant institutional sources will be critically reviewed.


PoP Up was the first exhibition project of MOM, dating back to 2011 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, New York. It was featured as a traveling exhibit for three years, attracting over 40,000 visitors from across the world (MOM, 2021c). The mode of exhibition collaborated with multiple international artists and universities to organize a plethora of projects, ephemera, and experiences. Many of these options included artwork, music, herstory, science and the relevance of cultural content (MOM, 2021c). The exhibition content in the Upper East Side location of Manhattan was broken down and organized into these six categories. The featured exhibit Womb Room mainly included art installations, photographs and sculptures from artists around the world. It emphasized how visual artists depicted the birthing experience. It is to be noted that this gallery was accompanied by a traveling library, which included feminist press and published books (MOM, 2021c). The second featured exhibit included Women In Her-story. was installed as a period room, fashioned in the style of a late 1800s parlor. Within this exhibit furniture, textiles, sewing machines and historical posters were included to illustrate iconic breakthroughs herstory, such as the women’s Suffrage Movement in the U.S (MOM, 2021c). The third featured exhibit, NURTURE: Stories of New Midlife Mothers, was the first art gallery exhibit that portrayed the struggles of women choosing motherhood over 40 (MOM, 2021c). The exhibit consisted of over 20 black and white photographs accompanied by narrative texts to illustrate the experience of surrogacy, childbirth and the maternal work of midlife mothers. Focusing more on female health, the fourth exhibit, Global Motherhood & Women’s Health, included birth kits for mothers in rural locations as well as healthcare content. Moving images, books and photographs were integrated with one another throughout the mixed-media exhibit to offer information pertaining to womanhood and motherhood (MOM, 2021c). SavingMothers, a nonprofit institution in New York dedicated to maternal health issues (SavingMothers, 2021) were partners on this exhibit. The fifth exhibit, Feminist Mothering, was a multimedia show focusing on the feminist movement and th emergence of women’s studies in academia (MOM, 2021c). The show combined various art practices and provided academic content. The final exhibit, Moms Rock, was curated as ten street window displays in the Village of Seneca Falls, NY, where the first wave feminists first argued on behalf of women’s rights (2021c), and then brought to the Manhattan location during the 29 month installation at 401 East 84th St.

The concept and mode of MOM’s travelling exhibition was innovative and unique. A comparable curatorial practice can be found in Andrea Francke’s Invisible Spaces of Parenthood: A collection of pragmatic propositions for a better future in London. As both artist and mother, Francke felt invisible as a mother-artist. For her thesis, she innovatively set up a functioning daycare space inside the gallery, and included her exhibition research in her creation Invisible Spaces of Parenthood Library, which served as an academic forum for public discussion on parenthood experiences (Bonnie, 2012). Both Francke’s and MOM’s exhibitions engaged with art, scholarship and cultural context within communities. Ultimately, it can be concluded that MOM’s traveling exhibition project achieved big success, as it combined well-curated concepts, well-constructed materials, the use of multimedia, a period room and multisensory scheme format. Despite a limited budget, the effective curatorial work was accomplished through close collaboration with local institutions, communities, and universities. However, a limitation of the exhibition project was poor documentation, which can likely be attributed to a shortage of both  funds and staff.

After the flourishing period in New York, Rose relocated the Museum to the Art Annex in Kenwood St. Petersburg, Florida, to better host exhibitions and additional programs (MOM, 2021a). In the new space, collections are categorized based on discipline for permanent display: Art, History, Science, Activism, and Sociology & Psychology (MOM, 2021d). Rose not only conducts guided tours for on-site visitors, but has also filmed virtual tours for online audiences (MOM, 2021e). The new Demeter Library has been set up in a more accessible way in comparison to previous travelling exhibitions. Additionally, academic books and journals were digitized for remote access (MOM, 2021d). Unlike the travelling exhibition, the newly-settled exhibit showcases on-going examinations of mothering and motherhood, moreover, its vision expands to the future of fatherhood and families. Local and international remote internships and onsite Residencies for artists are ongoing and continue to greatly contribute to the efficacy of MOM’s mission.

In March 2020, MOM launched a new exhibition at the  University of South Florida’s Tampa Campus in partnership with the Department of Women and Gender Studies (Rimensnyder, 2020). The Founding Mothers: Women in Herstory, curated by Rose, included objects on loan from the MOM collection and guest artists, meant to commemorate the centennial celebration of Women’s History Month in the U.S. by showcasing works of art and writings that challenged conventional stereotype of motherhood (MOM, 2021).

The latest exhibition project Me, We, Women was initiated by the author, who is a graduate of Art Curatorship in the University of Melbourne. The author conducted this independent curatorial project to reflect how female artists worldwide are shaping life and art from diverse angles while aiming for a pluralistic interconnection (MOM, 2021g). Eleven female artists from Ireland, Africa, China, Laos, Serbia, Canada, U.S, Brazil, Australia were featured throughout the three-month long project. The community-oriented and institutional perspective of the project was meant to correspond with MOM’s mission and future developing aspirations both online and in-person.

Despite more curators turning their attention increasingly to mother-artists, there are a limited number of institutions dedicated to motherhood and family art. One example is Art of Motherhood Community Gallery, run by Family Heirloom Arts, which showcases visual art created by mother-artists (Family Heirloom Arts, 2021). Although the scope of the Gallery is constrained by its online format, it contributes to it’s community development by hosting various workshops and residency programs. The Mother Gallery located in New York is another example, yet the concepts of its exhibits are loosely bound to the realms of motherhood and maternal art. As a commercial gallery, it specializes itself by representing eight women artists based in New York and mainly hosts solo shows for individual artists both online and offline (Mother Gallery, 2021). Through such comparisons, it can be concluded that MOM, as a non-profit, not only combines the utilization of a physical site and online display, but it is more accessible to a larger wider community encompassing: mother artists, mother academics, and general women who are mothers. The exhibition projects of MOM are not limited to artworks, but also elucidate science and herstory from multicultural and interdisciplinary perspectives.

Conference and Journal

The academic practices at MOM have two separate components: hosting conferences and publishing journals. An early forum about motherhood published by M/E/A/N/I/N/G was Forum: ON MOTHERHOOD, ART, AND APPLE PIE in 1992. In this publication, a diverse group of mother artists were asked to offer their views on the intersection of motherhood and art (Bee & Schor, 1992). This special issue unveiled a profound appreciation for motherhood, yet which was also contrasted against challenges in balancing art practice and maternal work (Waxman, 2014). Furthermore, motherhood-related conferences have been flourishing in the past few years. For example, the College Art Association held a conference in conjunction with the publication of The M Word in 2014 (Schaer, 2017). The following year witnessed the Mothernists Conference in Rotterdam, a three-day conference involving international curators, artists, educators and art historians who met to discuss the issue of labor and cultural reproduction (M/OTHER VOICES, 2015). In the same year, Elena Marchevska brought together a group of scholars and artists for a two-day conference in London, which aimed to celebrate creative practice in motherhood (Marchevska, 2015). The conference engaged international keynote speakers and participants, and was accompanied by a subsequent exhibition (Motherhood and Creative Practice, 2015).

The International MOM conference, organized through MOM in 2005, was an annual conference that integrated scholarship, creative practice and social highlights (MOM, 2021h). The focus of each year varies, and includes topics such as feminist studies, mother studies, maternal health and art in motherhood (MOM, 2021h). A noticeable strength of the conference comes from its partnership with tertiary academics. While the conference is delivered on-site, normally on campus of universities and colleges, last year’s event was canceled due to the pandemic. As the trend of digitalization grows and new norms make digitization of these events inevitable, MOM’s conference should keep pace with new technologies such as livestream to expand its social recognition and accessibility.

The creation of The Journal of Mother Studies (hereinafter JourMS) was a part of Rose’s Master’s degree and is currently affiliated with MOM. Before the establishment of JourMS, there had been two academic journals that were dedicated to understanding motherhood from an interdisciplinary perspective: The Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, founded by Andrea O’ Reilly in Canada in 1999, and The Studies in the Maternal Journal, founded by University of London in 2009 (Rose, 2015, p. 2). The former is a printed, peer-reviewed bi-annual journal with a paid subscription service. The latter is also peer-reviewed, yet is published online. Both aim to foster and encourage academic dialogue on motherhood within an interdisciplinary space (Rose, 2015, p. 2). Topics in these publications included pregnancy, childcare and reproduction. However, Rose recognized the undisclosed gap between mother studies and gendered discussion in a wider context by identifying the need to also address fatherhood and families (Rose, 2015, p. 3). In addition, it is necessary to bridge the historical past and the future, as each has been driven by the progress of humanity.

 To better address this need, Rose proposed the creation of JourMS, which not only is peer reviewed, open-access and international in its scope, but also adopts the use of digital humanities. In this way,  JourMS’s strengths are profound. Firstly, it overcomes budgetary concerns and extends accessibility by taking advantage of the methodologies utilized with digital humanities. Secondly, it reanimates a wider scope of mother studies informed by not only widely discussed disciplines such as arts and history, but also “women’s and gender studies, men’s studies, folkloric and media studies” (Rose, 2015, p. 48). One unfortunate weakness of the Journal, on the other hand, is the relatively long publication period. Although the submissions are open on a rolling basis (MOM, 2021i), the annual publication schedule might lag behind the dynamic recognition of motherhood in changing social contexts.

Residency and Projects

MOM is promoting mother studies and community recognition through featuring residency programs and building connections with partners in the community. Residencies enable artists to further their career by meeting other artists and curators (Gerwin, 2020). Past interviews also show that residency programs are particularly significant for mother artists to continue art creation after giving birth (Gressel, 2012). Despite most residencies in the U.S not providing support for artist families (Gerwin, 2020), there are some worldwide that are available for mother artists with children.

For example, Can Serrat in Spain (Donner, 2014), Marble House in Vermont, U.S (Oring, 2018), and Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium (Berman, 2013) provide for such needs. Artist Laura Berman (2013) appreciated how her residency in Belgium provided a gallery on-site, artistic equipment, and an ideal destination for children and cultivating a good family experience. Activist and artist Sheryl Oring (2018) highlighted the benefit of the residency in fostering community and sustainability, especially after her time during her hosted residency at the Marble House Project, which provided exclusive benefits for artists and their families with a workspace and creche facilities. Artist Kaitlynn Redell (2017) also stressed the importance of her residency providing flexibility and exploration of the local community during her stay, and its positive impact on her time. Moreover, Dhillon and Francke (2016) indicated that organizations should consider the various needs or demands of parent artists, as some feel creative and productive with children, while others view children as distractions. In short, art residency programs personalized for mother artists should be welcoming to families, support childcare service options and involve community engagement.

Artist and writer Daniel Gerwin (2020) described two models of residencies that support parent artists at present. One is exemplified in the examples above, while another is to find funds and stipends for childcare while artists are away. The author would like to argue the project Artist Residency in Motherhood is a paradigm of motherhood residency. The project, started by Lenka Clayton in 2012, is a fully funded project initiated in Clayton’s own home, aiming to inspire and empower mother artists (Clayton, 2021). The program is self-directed, free, customizable and on flextime.  Furthermore, Clayton innovatively built a network of 1,200 residences in 68 countries by encouraging people to register and structure their own sites (ARIM, 2021). Clayton believed that for mother artists and mother studies, a strong support structure is crucial, and should include a partner sharing parenting work, a positive response from dealers, a flexible studio setup and institutional support (Artsy, 2016).

The Art Annex Residency Program of MOM is open to artists and scholars who want engagement with mother studies in research and artmaking (MOM, 2021j). The program involves a residency cottage, flanked by various amenities. To get approval for residency, applicants are encouraged to participate within the local community as well as online (MOM, 2021). For past residencies, MOM has generated a separate webpage to display the narrative and production work of individual participants. However, MOM’s residency has not given full consideration to mothers with children on site. The limited budget of the non-profit institution also constrains its inclusiveness on  this matter as well as others. Nevertheless, the strength of MOM’s residency lies in its wider availability for researchers and students, which align with MOM’s objective to combine creative practice and scholarship.

It should also be noted that MOM has built up partnerships with other projects, groups and platforms. Firstly, The Archive for Mapping Mother Artists in Asia by Ruchika Singh and Artist Parent Index by Sarah Irvin, both are searchable and growing databases of mother artists or those making art about reproduction and child-rearing connected to MOM. The former one maps mother artists in Asia and documents various aspects of artmaking in motherhood (AMMAA, 2021). The latter one focuses on artistic themes of reproduction and parenting (Artist Parent Index, 2021). Both Artist Parent Index and MOM are connected with ProCreate Project, a pioneering arts organization in the UK that aims to support the career of mother artists, especially in supporting a mother’s return to creative practice through the provision of sustainable models, infrastructures and platforms (ProCreate Project, 2021a). Similar to MOM, this project also enhances collaboration with other universities and organizations.

The ProCreate Project also features the Mother Art Prize to support mother artists and drive public attention toward a broader spectrum of motherhood (ProCreate Project, 2021b). The practice has made a difference in the UK’s art industry (Judah, 2020), and MOM could apply this project’s model example as its future strategy. Secondly, MOM collaborates with two magazines: MUTHA and Mom Egg Review. MUTHA features birth stories and parenting narratives (MUTHA, 2021), while the latter publishes literature and art about motherhood (MER, 2021). Mom Egg Review is also funded by Motherhood Foundation Inc, State Council on the Arts and individual donors (MER, 2021), which not only indicates its interconnection with MOM within the community, but also suggests other potential fundraising sources for MOM.

The impact of these projects and groups on building stronger creative communities are vital. The active engagement with larger social agendas from progressive institutions could improve the overall community structure (Gurshtein, 2020). An early example of this seen in the 1970s was Mother Art, a feminist performance group in Los Angeles. The group was active in organizing exhibitions and workshops to make mother artists more visible in society (Heath, 2013). Another more contemporary group, Mothers Artists Makers, established in Ireland in 2016, brought together 350 international artist-mothers to forward family-friendly theater (Tartiere, 2020, p. 122). This organization inspired similar groups such as the Parent Artist Advocacy League in the U.S (Tartiere, 2020, p. 124). Maternal Fantasies, another group of international artists based in Berlin, are currently shaping the discourse on motherhood through interdisciplinary approaches (Maternal Fantasies, 2021). Mothers Who Make in London, a growing and self-sustaining international movement funded by individual mothers promotes creative women (Mothers Who Make, 2021). In short, the residency programs, projects, databases, magazines and groups either initiated by MOM or other institutions are facilitating an international community of evolving motherhood studies and motherhood art across the globe.


Based on the foregoing literature review and case study, MOM’s strengths can be concluded as follows: 1) integration of academics (mother studies), exhibitions (motherhood in art) and popular discourse (evolution of mothers in society); 2) cross-disciplinary perspectives with special attention on biology, healthcare and herstory; 3) wide partnerships with tertiary education, the motherhood community, mother study magazines, and cultural projects. Additionally, MOM bridges the gap between motherhood and family issues in the context of social narratives.

The weakness of MOM, on the other hand, is primarily caused by a limited budget that relies on government and public funding. The priority for future development is to enhance fundraising projects. Secondly, under the strain of the pandemic, the residency program, physical exhibitions, and conferences have been postponed or cancelled. From the perspective of scholarship, the author suggests adopting online conferences to increase accessibility. For exhibition division, the author recommends building partnerships with not only universities, but also local museums and art galleries with featured or rotating exhibit space. The partnership could enhance MOM’s recognition in a way of joint display and temporary exhibitions. Additionally, for residency projects, MOM should reorganize facilities to better support mother artists with children. to better align themselves with a more family-welcome scheme, MOM can refer to Clayton’s paradigm, connecting with other mother residencies in the U.S, to improve the community structure.

Ultimately, MOM is the first and only institution devoted to mother studies and motherhood in art from an interdisciplinary perspective. This domain calls for more active, community-orientated institutions that can collaborate with each other to raise the public attention to mothers, mothering, and motherhood, while also aiming to create a more supportive community structure for mother artists and mothers in society. Undoubtedly there are challenges, missteps and setbacks along the way, nevertheless, as Kawash (2011, p. 997) indicates, MOM has created a boundary-crossing opportunity to bridge academic and popular discussion. ​​If fully funded, utilized, and implemented on a larger scale, there would be more positive developments and institutionalized practices that reflect these trends in the future, not only in the U.S, but across the world.”


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