MoMA Acquires @ – Promotional Products Beware?

If you haven’t already heard, the MoMA (that’s the Museum of Modern Art in NYC – or New York City – for those not keen to acronyms) acquired the “@” symbol a few weeks ago. That’s right, that lowercase a with a circle around it will now be in a collection among Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Pollock’s Number 31, Picasso’s The Young Ladies of Avignon, Matisse’s The Red Studio, Cezanne’s Still Life With Apples, and other noted masterpieces of modern art.

Okay, well not exactly. It is a part of MoMA’s Department of Agriculture and Design so will be among items like Weiss’s chrome-plated toaster, Rubik’s eminent cube, and a collection that includes other such appliances, textiles, furniture and even a helicopter. Dating back to perhaps the sixth or seventh century when theory suggests it was used as an abbreviation of “ad,” the Latin word for “at” or “toward,” by 1885 (when it appeared on the keyboard of the first typewriter) it was being used mostly in accounting documents, as shorthand for “at the rate of.” Then finally in 1971 American programmer Raymond Tomlinson added it to the address of the first e-mail message, forever after ingraining it as part of our daily digital lives.

The @ symbol is said to meet all the same requirements as the other pieces of the collection in form and function as well as cultural impact and innovation but this addition shows how our ideals and expectations in terms of design are changing – as @ is not a physical thing to be acquired, but rather an immaterial design. Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, attempts to explain this change in a post she wrote for MoMA’s blog on March 22:

“Contemporary art, architecture, and design can take on unexpected manifestations, from digital codes to Internet addresses and sets of instructions that can be transmitted only by the artist…The acquisition of @…relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that “cannot be had”—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection.”

That being said, the MoMA is not featuring any specific version of the symbol in the collection but rather will show it in different typefaces, indicating the times the particular version was used like they would note the materials of which a physical piece was made.

So what does that mean for the general public and our continued use of the @ symbol? Well, nothing really. You won’t have to be paying the MoMA any royalties for printing it on your promotional products or anything.

So what do you think about this new acquisition? Does it merit a place alongside the aforementioned works of art, architecture and design? What’s next? The exclamation point? The dollar sign? The letter a?

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1 comment

I would love to see a whole exhibit of the history of typographical symbols! The @, the ampersand (&), even the period. I’m sure there’s lots to say about when these came about, how they are used in other languages, etc.

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