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New York's Museum Of Modern Art Acquires Original Emoji


Coming soon to the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, an acquisition announced this week - 176 Japanese pictographs from the very late 20th century. They are the original emojis - 176 symbols for such things as cloudy weather, dog, cat, golf, karaoke bar - all the basics of civilization.

Joining us all the way from India via Skype to talk about MoMA's acquisition is the museum's senior curator for architecture and design, Paola Antonelli. Good to talk with you again.

PAOLA ANTONELLI: Good to talk to you, Robert. And you forgot the martini glass.

SIEGEL: No, I didn't...

ANTONELLI: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: ...Because I didn't notice it. What is the - how would you measure the significance of the original emojis?

ANTONELLI: It is hard to overstate it. I mean if you think about it, we cannot live without emojis today. We've become used into condensing our thoughts and our kind of emotions in them. And that's why they were made.

SIEGEL: Why were these created in the first place in Japan?

ANTONELLI: They were created because of a necessity the Japanese had to sometimes have convoluted formal expressions condensed into a very, very quick message.

And also it was created because DoCoMo, the original producer and telecommunications company, wanted to be able to deliver to the audiences messages such as the weather forecast or other commercial constraints.

SIEGEL: The originals are - each one is I believe 12 pixels by 12 pixels.

ANTONELLI: That's correct.

SIEGEL: That they're very rudimentary then, much more so than the emojis of today. Should today's smiley faces wearing shades or dollar signs for eyes - do they also belong in the MoMA?

ANTONELLI: Maybe one day, and it depends on which ones. But you know, the funny thing is that we think they're rudimentary. But at the time, they were amazingly advantaged. And right now they kind of feel nostalgic, but they were making the best out of what they had at that time. And it was really remarkable. Some emojis of today are definitely deserving of their place in our museum, and we'll consider them later on.

SIEGEL: We talked in the past about the ingeniously designed Kikkoman soy sauce bottle. You very publicly also brought Pac-Man to MoMA. How do you sum up your approach to design, culture and the Museum of Modern Art?

ANTONELLI: Well, the philosophy is that we're trying to document the art of our time and the design of our time. And these three particular items that you talked about are really about our time. Not only that, but also they're quite humble.

You know, both Pac-Man, the Kikkoman soy sauce and the emojis have become a - really a part of our life, so much so that we hardly notice them. And we use them all the time. That's why they are so important as items of design. They're humble masterpieces.

SIEGEL: That's an odd measure for the importance of design - that we hardly notice them. They're part of the wallpaper pattern of life. Shouldn't something that noteworthy stand out to us?

ANTONELLI: Well, they do stand out the moment I as a curator point the finger at them. It's very funny. My job is to let people understand that these objects are fantastic universes unto themselves. And you know, it takes nothing. It's as if I were waking people up with these exhibitions and with these acquisitions.

SIEGEL: It's Paola Antonelli, who is senior curator for architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. She spoke to us from Mumbai in India. Enjoy the Diwali festivities.

ANTONELLI: Thank you very much, Robert. Happy Diwali to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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