@ Is @ MoMA @ No Cost

We all know that design is done within constraints, but design projects naturally inspire efforts to ignore them. Among the most common constraints are time, space and money. Once I was involved in a huge ecology exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, and we had not yet agreed on an exhibit vehicle for demonstrating the process of evolution. The right film might have done it, but the show already had several films in it, and anyway there wasn't enough time or money for another. Late one night I had the kind of idea born of extreme desperation and the giddiness that comes with the final stages of charette: What if we didn't show anything at all and instead helped viewers to do it themselves? We could ask them to close their eyes and imagine, for example, a short-necked giraffe. While they kept their eyes closed a voice-over would explain how and why the giraffe's neck became elongated, asking visitors (they would no longer be viewers) to imagine that too. Ridiculous? Maybe, but it would cost hardly anything, and take relatively little time. Moreover, it would be participatory, which was at the time a mandatory buzz word in exhibition planning.

The idea was not warmly received by anyone. The solemn young biologist who was the exhibition's science adviser scoffed that it would reduce the material to the level of a children's book based on a fable. Others assumed that I was joking. Somehow, though, the proposal reached the client and was immediately shot down not because of the idea's absurdity, but from fear of liability. Lawyers pointed out that, even if people were willing to do it, we had no idea of how long they could stand with their eyes closed. What if they were to faint, bump into each other, fall down, develop seizures, go to sleep?

I don't remember what we did instead. Resistance to constraints came to mind when I read that MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design has now acquired the @ symbol into its collection. The announcement was unsurprisingly greeted with a measure of bewilderment, ridicule, sarcasm and disbelief (some assumed it was the teaser for an April Fool's Day stunt). When challenged to justify this “acquisition” of something that has been on our keyboards for as long as any of us can remember, Paola Antonelli, MoMA's masterly and daring senior curator of design, explained it as a reasonable extension of the department's mission to collect and interpret design, asking playfully, “Why should we be stopped by the laws of physics?”

Of course we all are routinely stopped by the laws of physics. In the 18th century Samuel Johnson, irritated by Bishop Berkeley's seeming denial that the physical world was real, kicked a rock and said, “I refute him thus.” Museums are normally subject to the same laws, as they discover each time they wish to add buildings or try to simultaneously hang two pictures in the same space. But where acquisitions are concerned, museums have a loophole. If “acquire” is defined so broadly that it doesn't necessarily imply possession, museums can lay claim to whatever they wish. That adjustment would not satisfy the rest of us, for whom keeping up with the Joneses does not mean just declaring that you have what others actually have. If, like Janis Joplin, you want a Mercedes, you can't get one by simply affixing a sticker to it, no matter how effective the graphics. (For one thing, the real owner might drive off, sticker and all. ) Same with symbols. Individuals can declare themselves the proprietors of monograms or other glyphs if they are personal. But not if they are in the public domain. Ayn Rand, for example, may have thought she owned the dollar sign, but she didn't try to copyright it, perhaps because that would have entailed dealing with the federal government. Museums, however, can take a less rigid position. Their exegetical mission permits, and may even demand, a looser interpretation.

MoMA has a rich history of controversial acquisitions. Apart from the customary feuds over paintings and sculpture that all art museums are heir to, the Architecture and Design Department has often mounted exhibitions that provoked skepticism, even rage. In the 1960s curator Arthur Drexler was castigated for including the control panel of the Ramac computer in a design show. The industrial designer Victor Papanek in Design for the Real World wrote of the “fuzzy nineteenth-century thinking... seen when the Museum of Modern Art exhibits the tangled color-coded guts of a computer as 'Twentieth Century Good Design.'”

In such cases, the curator's urge is to expand public understanding that design, like language and law, is subject to change over time. In addition, though, I suppose folks who run museums must always be frustrated by the restriction that they can only display what they own or are able to borrow. In 1975 Lisa Taylor, the indefatigable founding director of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, did something that presaged Paula Antonelli's friendly takeover of @. Frustrated by building renovation delays, and impatient to launch the museum, Lisa didn't wait for the official opening. She ingeniously made the first exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt a show consisting of things that weren't there. The exhibition, defiantly called “Immovable Objects,” was supported graphically by maps directing visitors to buildings in lower Manhattan and captions telling their history and significance.

On MoMA's blog Paula writes, “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 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 @….”

And not only are the curators thus freed, the @ is itself free: “It might be the only truly free—albeit not the only priceless—object in our collection,” she points out.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.