The Mother Archive: Immersion, Affect and the Maternal in Museum Practice

Rebecca Louise Clarke considers how the maternal experience is shared and archived in today’s digital museum spaces. This post is based on an article that appears in the 2020 issue of Lilith, available now on open access here.

The merging of home and work life brought on by the pandemic, has made domestic labour, in particular parenting, more visible. With the increasing need to be working from home, colleagues are faced with unusually intimate engagements with one another. In zoom meetings, home interiors are revealed, children are glimpsed. Recent discussions have pointed out that invisible domestic labour has consequently become glaringly vivid in at home work set-ups. As Catharine Lumby describes it, ‘we’re seeing a lot more of each other than we anticipated.’

As maternal scholars such as Anne Mann, Petra Bueskens and Maria Tumarkin have argued, the role of care-giver is under-valued, under-represented and needs to be recognised by Australian society. Mann suggests that, neoliberalism gives paid work an ‘enchanted, even sacred value’, while the work of unpaid care labour is made invisible. As Mann puts it, ‘The visible capitalist economy then, both depends upon, and free-rides on, the ‘invisible heart’; the unpaid caring labour largely provided by women.’ My project, ‘The Mother Archive’, a digital archive about motherhood, aims to bring more visibility to the role mothers have played in Australian history.

In light of the current pandemic, a digital archive about motherhood would be pertinent. With the ever-increasing need to find digital ways to translate museums into the virtual world, the once abstract notion of the virtual museum in scholarly discourse has grown critical for museums who now must employ innovative digital techniques to present collections and programs in order to survive.

How can we represent the inner-world of mothers and ‘maternal subjectivity’ in museum collections and programs? Motherhood and the maternal are heavily neglected curatorial themes in Australian museums. A search of museum databases reveals that the topic of motherhood is often raised in the peripheral, as a side note to other issues which serve as the main focus for collections, such as feminism and women’s activist movements. Similarly, there exists no known scholarly research on the representation of motherhood in Australian museums.

How does a first-time mother make sense of her maternal experiences? The well-known What to expect when you’re expecting first published in 1984, now in its fifth edition, remains on the New York bestseller list. This book, along with countless websites targeted at expectant mothers, aims to educate women about each stage of their pregnancy. In this sense, there is little room for perspectives on ‘matrescence’, the transformation of first-time motherhood, outside the parameters of medical language. My project, ‘The Mother Archive’, strives to create a digital archive of ‘inobservable worlds’ the actual experiences of matrescence as voiced by mothers.

The ever-growing trend of Mummy blogs illustrates a great need for mothers to share their experiences, but as Maria Tumarkin’s critique of the ubiquitous Mummy memoir suggests, marketing of literature under the patronising umbrella of the ‘momoir’ can mute real lived complexities of motherhood in favour of stereotypical representations. Tumarkin argues that what is needed to ‘blast things open’ is instead, ‘formal innovation, hybridity of form, opening up of language, a getting at and through motherhood in unexpected ways.’

‘The Mother Archive’ aims to ‘blast things open’ by drawing on the affective potential of digital technologies. This immersive archive which utilises immersive technologies including for instance, Virtual Reality (VR), aims to achieve a representation of maternal subjectivity by exploring what becomes possible when we approach the archive in new and exciting ways. I propose that a ‘mother archive’ can best be facilitated by curatorial practice that employs techniques of immersion, affect and the model of the ‘relational museum’ and that digital technologies offer us valuable tools to realise these techniques.

Rebecca Louise Clarke is a Monash University PhD candidate, a Museums Victoria research associate, and a Robert Blackwood Partnership Award fellow. Rebecca has taught at various Victorian universities and presented her work at local and international conferences. She authored the film criticism book, The Monkey’s Mask: Film, Poetry and the Female Voice (ATOM publishing) and has been published in poetry, film and cultural studies journals. Currently, her work explores memory, emotion, museums, and motherhood.

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