Friday, March 26, 2010




The universal communication and internet symbol @ has been acquired by MoMA. When I first saw this news release I wondered how a museum could own a symbol in their collection. I went to their website,, and looked around. I didn’t find any other symbol like this that wasn’t attached to an overall image or model; however, I did find what the MoMA is saying about the @ symbol as an acquisition.

MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Designs says the acquisition of the @ symbol means it is no longer a necessary requirement to have physical possession of an object. They acknowledge things that “cannot be had” because they are too big -- like buildings, airplanes and installations, but they go on to say the same criteria of quality, relevance, and overall excellences shared by all objects in MoMA’s collection also apply to these entities. So @ is sharing the same criteria as all objects acquired; but they are now called entities not objects. As I looked around on the MoMA website I didn’t see any other entities so widely used freely by the public. So if @ cannot be had, what is the purpose of having it in MoMA’s collection?

The @ symbol is not an objet to own. So MoMa put the image of the symbol in the graphic design collection which includes typography, posters, and other combinations of text and image.
I guess that @ fits into that category of art, but its free use is what makes it so important. I started to think about what other symbols have been so widely used in the world without, any sort of religious hinge, and I couldn’t think of any. @ crosses all lines of culture, beliefs, freedoms and attachment. Its free use is what makes it such a global symbol.

When I looked up the history of @ on Wikipedia I found the most compelling part to be the computer history; Ray Tomlinson, American electrical engineer developed a computer system to send messages to different computers through his network. He noticed the underused @ symbol already on the keyboard. In 1971 Tomlinson appropriated @ to use for his first email. This is what makes this little symbol so important to the world? Anyone with a computer, cell phone or any other type of social, communication or information devise knows the importance of @.

Maybe its acquisition by MoMA is to honor the @. I think most users already know this. Wikipedia had some ancient history on @ I found interesting but it is nothing like its use today.
Thinking about how to collect an artistic idea made from an installation, performance or thought has proved to be challenging for museums and galleries. Taking a photo of these does not depict the moment in time when it happened.

It is like a good play or concert, once the lights are off it is clearly never going to be the same, can’t be owned. But money was made from the performance. The @ symbol is our work-horse. Maybe it is achieving sainthood. The MoMa tried to explain this acquisition by saying “it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that “cannot be had.”

Tag the world? I guess to acknowledge things makes since. I wonder if this is going to start a new form of collection. What is the next symbol to be added to their collection?

Jenny Harris

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