The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York announced today that it has acquired the original 176-character set of emojis for their permanent collection. The original “12 x 12 pixel humble masterpieces,” as MoMA called them in their Medium post, were developed by NTT DOCOMO under the supervision of Shigetaka Kurita. The original set was released to cell phones in 1999. This set off the beginning of an entirely new language that would eventually become ubiquitous in mobile messaging.
MoMA credits the new language with altering the way we communicate. “The design of a chair dictates our posture; so, too, does the format of electronic communication shape our voice.” The institution gained notoriety for these cheeky acquisitions when they got the “@” symbol and a set of seminal video games, all of which is a 21st-century continuation of curator Paola Antonelli’s famous Humble Masterpieces show from 2003 that set off a decade-plus exploration of the beautiful in everyday objects. That show, which displayed everything from band-aids to light bulbs under plexiglass, even made references to Philip Johnson’s original Machine Art show by including the ball bearings that were one of the first acquisitions by MoMA in 1934.
As for emojis, this set was seminal in the history of telecommunications. The 176 emoji (picture characters) became an instant hit and were copied by rival companies in Japan. When Apple released the updated, unicode version for iPhone in 2011, they became the new form of communication we know today.
Paul Galloway, MoMA architecture & design collection specialist, said that “This acquisition was the work of many people both at MoMA and at NTT DOCOMO. First and foremost I must thank the indefatigable Paola Antonelli, our fearless advocate for expanding an appreciation of the field of design to new realms, who initiated this project. I also thank our Chief Curator, Martino Stierli, A&D Curatorial Assistant Michelle Fisher, Alexis Sandler of the MoMA General Counsel office, and Betty Fisher in the Exhibition Design department. And I commend and send thanks to NTT DOCOMO’s large team, who exhibited tremendous patience, flexibility, and an adventurous spirit well in keeping with their company’s great heritage.”