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MoMA Acquires '@' Symbol, Ampersand Values Plummet

If you take a look across the top of your keyboard, you will notice an invaluable work of design that has been recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator for the Department of Architecture and Design, decided that '@' was due for some institutional gravitas, and pitched it to MoMA's design and architecture acquisitions committee. Why this quotidian symbol, and why now, you ask? What makes '@' a piece of design worthy of museum attention?

The '@' symbol has a relatively long history in writing, at least as far back as the 15th century. Historians, linguists, and philologists have debated over the origin of the symbol, but its birthplace remains murky. Medieval monks used it to mean 'ad' (Latin for 'to' or 'toward') in their manuscripts, while Renaissance traders used it to mean 'amphora,' both a ceramic vessel and a unit of measure, on their ledgers. But, for most of its history, '@' remained in relative obscurity, despite appearing on typewriter keys as far back as 1885. Think about the caret, or the '^' symbol. Assuming that you're not a mathematician, how often do you employ that symbol for uses other than Japanese emoticon cats? Well, '@' was sort of like that.

In 1967, however, an American electrical engineer named Ray Tomlinson flipped the '@' world upside down while he was working with tech company BBN on a contract from Advanced Research Projects agency, then developing the proto-Internet network known as ARPAnet. Tomlinson worked on a system of sending and receiving messages between computers on that network, now commonly known as e-mail. He decided to co-opt the infrequently utilized symbol to designate a specific user 'at' a specific host computer. We don't need to say much more for you to realize how far-reaching this little decision was.

For the design department at MoMA, this unintended historical shift in use and meaning of a symbol was enough to warrant museum recognition. But the decision to 'acquire' the '@' symbol is a curious one for many reasons. The museum recently purchased conceptual artist Tino Sehgal's performance 'The Kiss' for a reported $70,000. (The artist, whose solo show at the Guggenheim recently ended, notoriously eschews written contracts, recordings and other documentation in the sale of his works.) Acquiring an ephemeral and incorporeal work like Sehgal's is pretty new for the museum, but Antonelli obviously wanted to accelerate the move toward conceptual acquisitions with '@.'

But the 'acquisition' itself is symbolic, as '@' exists in the public domain and is owned by no one. Of course, this acquisition gives MoMA no proprietary rights over the symbol, and, according to Antonelli, may be the only free object in the museum's collection. As such, MoMA will not display one specific kind of '@' symbol, but will rather celebrate it through a variety of typefaces. While some may question the purchase of conceptual pieces like Sehgal's by an institution like MoMA, we think that everyone can get behind this kind of 'acquisition.' (We really can't write that without quotation marks.) We all use '@,' and we all own it -- and that's the best kind of design there is. [From: MoMA and NYTimes]

Tags: arpa, arpanet, AtSymbol, design, email, language, moma, PaolaAntonelli, RayTomlinson, TinoSeghal