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@ at MoMA

21 April, 2010

I have been thinking about what I should acquire for the PEM photography collection since  the Museum of Modern Art announced it has acquired the ‘@’ symbol for its permanent collection. Not just any ‘@’ symbol by the way, but all of them. Or to be exact, the concept of ‘@’ symbols. It’s a great idea! I wonder if PEM couldn’t acquire the ‘f’ stop? Or something bigger – ‘the camera,’ or ‘the negative’ maybe? How about seeing itself?

Maybe I’m just jealous. Sure MoMA’s acquisition is a PR stunt, but there is a serious point too. Creating a symbol to stand for an idea is a design exercise, and ‘@’ is a great symbol. Design surrounds us and appears in unexpected places. Since the MoMA design collection is a place where great designs are kept, the ‘@’ symbol belongs.

Charming MoMA architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli is the spokesperson for the move, and she appeared on National Public Radio the other day to explain. The acquisition was made in recognition of the importance of the @ symbol in the development of the internet, specifically Ray Tomlinson’s decision to use it to economize computer keystrokes (in the 1960s?). MoMA didn’t acquire a particular ‘@,’ but the idea of it. And though this is pretty bold in theory, in its formal announcement the museum retrenched a bit, noting that the @ symbol they’ve chosen to display on the web is the closest approximation they could come up with for the @’s on Model 33 Teletype machines – the kind Tomlinson used. Which suggests they value certain @’s over others, so maybe they are collecting typography after all. Are they only interested in modern-looking @’s?

Antonelli and the MoMA website are full of interesting information about the @ symbol and how important it is. I don’t disagree with any of it. It is a great symbol and the internet has embraced it. Fair enough.

But I worry that the acquisition has had unforeseen consequences. First, there was confusion about what was actually done. Some people assumed that MoMA acquired copyright for ‘@’ symbols, which made it sound like they were going to license its use and profit accordingly. Of course that’s not what happened at all, but there were angry posts on the MoMA website and elsewhere, so in that way it backfired.

As a curator I’m constantly fighting the idea that art museums are disconnected from reality, and that we do things that don’t make sense to ordinary people. On that level the @ acquisition is a bad  idea. Using a leap of conceptual logic to justify the theoretical acquisition of something as obtuse as a symbol makes it sound like all of us in the museum world live on a different planet.

And then there’s the issue of whether @ is actually Modern design. The symbol is known from Medieval European times and elements predate that. Does the appropriation and creative reuse of an ancient symbol constitute Modern art? 

And why stop at ‘@’ anyway? How about ‘.’ as in ‘.com’ ‘.edu’ and ‘.org’? Why not accession emoticons? And where would the internet be without the alphabet anyway? It is made up of historical symbols like @ that we reuse creatively on a daily basis.

MoMA’s announcement also raises serious questions about what ‘acquiring’ something means. If MoMA really did enter @ into their collection, then according to museum standards their registrars are now obliged to track and catalogue it for all time – until it is deaccessioned. The museum’s curators are likewise obliged to care for the @ symbol too. If they’ve acquired a concept, does this mean they are now its self-appointed custodians? Must they defend it against diminution and abuse, improper use or incorrect execution? Or they only acquiring the @ symbol the way it was used in March of 2010.

These may sound like silly questions, but for museum acquisitions to mean something, such questions are important. If other museums followed MoMA’s  lead (none have, so far as I know) it would set a horrible precedent.

MoMA is a heavyweight among museums, and its actions have impact. The ‘@’ announcement caused a few eyebrows to be raised in the art world – the friendliest possible audience for artsy trickery.  The rest of the world just shrugged, sighed, and chalked us up as more alien than ever.


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