This exhibition has closed
This exhibition explored women's experiences of childbirth around the
time of Federation, and the connection between the birth of the nation
and the first births of the nation.
Mothers of 1901 lived in a society obsessed with birth - cartoonists often pictured the Commonwealth as a small baby tended by matronly politicians. In reality, the birthrate was falling and there was great concern about what impact it might have on the growth of 'White Australia'. Childbearing became a national duty and was the focus of public debates about women's rights and racial fears.
The diverse experiences of pregnancy and childbirth between rich and poor women, single and married mothers, mothers in the city and in the bush, and within Aboriginal and non-Indigenous communities, were a feature of the exhibition.
Aboriginal women's birth experiences were largely shaped by government policies and cultural traditions. Childbirth is women's business and when a woman is due, she would leave the home camp and, with the help of her female Elders, would visit a special place for the birth of her child. As Delia Lowe from the Jerrinja community near Jervis Bay explains in one of the exhibition's audiovisuals: "When a woman gives birth on the land its a spiritual thing that connects mother, child and land. It creates a bond between mother and child, together with the land."
Fascinating comparisons between 1901 and 2001 were also discussed. A
century ago most women gave birth in their homes whilst hospital births
were reserved mainly for difficult obstetric cases. Untrained 'grannie'
midwives were popular birth attendants - doctors were only just asserting
their authority to attend women in labour. In an age before the use of
antibiotics and caesareans, maternal and infant mortality rates were high.
After birth, women were considered invalids and encouraged to stay in
bed for long periods - although few could afford such luxury.
Objects featuring in the exhibition included recreated doctor's and midwife's bags, breast-feeding equipment, a coolamon , baby clothing, feeders and christening gowns, as well as a reproduction of a 1901 maternity corset. Photographs, papers and objects belonging to rural midwives and chris tening and other clothes made for the new baby from regional areas of New South Wales were also displayed.
Three audiovisuals brought 1901 childbirth experiences to life through letters, diaries, novels and newspaper reports about the women and men who were there.