Risk, Childbirth and Women’s Choices in the Museum

Risk, Childbirth and Women’s Choices in the Museum

Caitlin Stobie writes:

From Call the Midwife and The Handmaid’s Tale to One Born Every Minute, pregnancy and childbirth – and related risks like miscarriage or stillbirth – are currently popular topics in media depictions of feminism and choice. But how might definitions of risk affect women’s agency in labour? And how have definitions of such risks changed over time?

Bearing Different Risks: Choices in Childbirth Through History is a mobile exhibition showcasing research by historians, midwives, and other medical practitioners exploring issues surrounding these complex questions. It is a collaboration between the University of Leeds and the Thackray Medical Museum, where the exhibition is currently open to the public.

The exhibition arises as part of The Risks in Childbirth in Historical Perspective, an AHRC-funded research network led by Dr Adrian Wilson (University of Leeds) and Dr Tania Mcintosh (University of Brighton). Other members are academics and midwives from across the UK and further afield, uniting representatives from related medical humanities projects like Conceiving Histories, De Partu, MaMSIE, and Perceptions of Pregnancy. Previous outputs by the collective include a range of “Birth Stories” videos, various academic and media publications, and a group of workshops in London, Leeds, and Brighton.

With Bearing Different Risks, the network wanted to inform people about misrepresentations of risk in popular discourse, while acknowledging that modern childbirth may still be risky (particularly for women of lower socioeconomic status). A related concern was that many mainstream representations of pregnancy and labour tend to focus on Westerners’ perspectives. Finally, while the research was mostly historical, the exhibition would have to entertain a range of learning styles. We felt it particularly important to have suitable elements for all visitors to a family museum (including pregnant people!).

The travelling display condenses information on childbirth from Canada, India, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and more. At the opening on 15 June 2018, standout elements of the exhibition included: a wearable ‘empathy belly’, a 3D puzzle of a pregnant pelvis, and a sensory display of smells used to treat labour pains in Roman Egypt. Alongside these interactive elements, there is also a reading nook with books and academic resources (as well as short fiction on the theme).

So far, feedback forms have praised the emphasis on individuality and agency in the exhibition. We have received some interesting guesses about the foods used to lessen labour pains, and look forward to receiving more submissions of childbirth stories from museum visitors.

Visitors to the Thackray Medical Museum paying standard entry fees may view Bearing Different Risks until 15 September 2018 (see flyer for more information). In the following months, the exhibition will move to medical museums in London and Brighton. For more information and updates, see the network’s website or follow @birthriskhist.


Caitlin Stobie is a doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds, where she is a research intern on The Risks of Childbirth in Historical Perspective and co-curator of Bearing Different Risks. Her thesis examines representations of abortion, embodiment, and agency in southern African fiction.

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