ST. PETERSBURG — Inside a historic bungalow on 28th Street North, a dream is being nurtured.
It’s an incubator for a museum dedicated to motherhood and also the home of its founder: artist, activist and mother Martha Joy Rose.
Rose, who goes by Joy, has been working on plans for a Museum of Motherhood for decades. Her home is also the office of the nonprofit MoM Art Annex and is part of the Artist Enclave of Historic Kenwood.
Hailing from New York, Rose said she was born in Ithaca, worked in Manhattan and raised kids in Westchester. She previously taught mother studies and sociology of family at Manhattan College.
The mother of three sons who live locally and a daughter who lives in California, Rose moved to St. Petersburg in 2016.
“I came here just with ideas and a legacy of popup museums in various places,” she said.
A rich history
Rose was a singer and songwriter in the New York club scene in the 1980s. Her single “In and Out of Love Affairs” made the Billboard dance charts and was an MTV Basement Tape winner in 1984.
When her four children were very young, she contracted lupus. She went through grueling chemotherapy, eventually had renal failure and underwent a kidney transplant 23 years ago.
“The message that came to me was gratitude is not enough,” she said. “I was very grateful for everything I had. But then I was put here to do something else.”
The initial diagnosis led her back to music. She started the band Housewives on Prozac in 1997 and later created the Mamapalooza Festival that featured similar female bands and evolved to include traveling exhibits and academic conferences that spread to 25 cities and four countries.
“The idea behind the festival and the band was like, women have expressions to make post-motherhood that still relate to their identity as women,” she said.
But Rose worried that the legacy of the art and the movements would disappear if it wasn’t archived properly. So she conceived the idea for the museum and held a series of popups and events.
After a Mom Rocks event in Seneca Falls in New York — the location of the Women’s Hall of Fame and the first women’s rights convention in the United States — Housewives on Prozac was honored with a key to the city. It hangs next to a drawing her son — former Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Ali Marpet — made for her for Mother’s Day.
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The largest and longest-running popup she had was in Manhattan in 2011. Sponsored by children’s clothing brand Gymboree, it ran for 29 months in a 2,500-square-foot space and had an attendance of 40,000 people. Students from Hunter College and Columbia University did internships there.
At the end of the Manhattan popup, the project couldn’t secure an affordable location. So, drawing inspiration from Susan B. Anthony to never give up, Rose set her sights on St. Petersburg. Two of her children were attending Eckerd College (Rose herself spent a semester there in 1979) and she recognized the city’s emphasis on arts and culture and openness to museums.
Bringing the vision to life
Rose started the MoM Art Annex in 2019. Then the pandemic hit, so she considers this its “coming out year,” although it’s more of a place to learn than it is to tour.
“We’ve had 20 years of ideas because the first thing was, what would you even put in a museum of motherhood?” she said. “So it took us a long time to even identify what that could be and an even longer time for the field of mother studies to grow, where there’s actual scholarship on the anthropology, history, sociology and art of motherhood.”
The annex holds a bite-sized sampling of the exhibits that the museum would expand on. It begins on the front porch, with a mural of Sojourner Truth, the former enslaved abolitionist and civil rights activist who famously said, “Ain’t I a woman?”
The vision for the museum is a multilevel building with a facade shaped like a pregnant belly. Floors will be dedicated to art, science, history and global initiatives to represent mothers around the world. The history, or rather “herstory,” section will cover the “four waves of the women’s movement.”
Exhibits are also cataloged on the Museum of Motherhood website: mommuseum.org.
Starting on the porch with an antique stove, a section dedicated to women’s domestic work is highlighted inside. It breaks down the past 200 years into eras: agricultural, industrial, service and information.
A case filled with anatomical models of the female reproductive system addresses science. So does the 20-pound pregnancy vest guests can try on for the sensation of being pregnant, and a pair of forceps from the 1800s. There are Portuguese fertility symbols, a belly mask that young boys in Tanzania were given and an African birth chair.
An ethereal paper sculpture by artist Helen Hiebert glows in a corner. It’s called the Mother Tree statue and has long nursing tendrils coming from the breast, to conceptually feed the community. It rests atop skeins of yarn that were crocheted by 400 volunteers from around the world and have intentions attached to them, like the wish for a healthy planet. The piece has been acquired for the museum.
It’s flanked by the Boob Blanket (a project Rose made with an intern and local artists) and the vulva door — red fabric installed in an archway, with the same birth flags that hang on the porch.
Rose’s bedroom is like a gallery, filled with the art of motherhood, which she said she‘s seen rise exponentially since she started Housewives on Prozac. In a corner hangs a piece by fellow Kenwood artist Sallie Hackett Brown, inspired by being an empty nester.
In Rose’s office, there are more than 800 books on various topics. It serves as a space where people convene with Rose about their parenting experience or birth story.
“Part of the mission is to hold space for all stories and voices and recognizing that motherhood is so different for so many people,” she said. “We use the word reproductive identity here. So like anyone who is even experiencing a period or thinking about who they want to be, if they want to be a parent, or has tried and then lost a baby along the way or never been able to conceive. Ideas that males have about their sexual and reproductive tendencies. Where can you talk about this or your parenting thing? So (I’m) trying to make a safe space that can hold those voices.”
Students from next door’s St. Petersburg High School come over after school to talk, Rose said, making the space somewhat of a safe house in the face of the regulation of reproductive rights. Rose said she works with a dozen interns from around the world on the project.
Locally, the nonprofit has had a presence at Localtopia and the University of South Florida. Rose wants to find a space to be more “publicly facing” and is working on the internal structure.
Over the summer, Rose will work on the next conference and edit the Journal of Mother Studies. From May to July, she is running a $30 annual membership special to belong to the MoM Art Annex. A major focus is inviting other women who have mother and family businesses and organizations to register on the online MoM directory.
Rose said she is building up a local board, “so that’s a strong invitation to get involved.” She has some advisers on the team and would like it to grow.
“There’s somebody out there who sees the value of this,” she said. “This is a legacy project ... we’ve got all our t’s crossed and our i’s dotted now. So we’re ready to roll.”
For more information, visit mommuseum.org.