The glyphs were released and 1999 and designed for pagers made by the Japanese mobile provider NTT DoCoMo. The set includes primitive versions of numerous emoji still used today – such as the fist, the no smoking sign, various hearts, the 12 zodiac symbols and googly eyes – and also helps explain some of the more peculiar designs. A circle with three lines rising from it stands for “hot spring” (that symbol is still included in sets), while an amorphous blob means “art.”
The original emoji set was also notably created not for person-to-person communication, but for corporations to send short messages to customers, such as weather reports or alerts for local businesses (“hamburger” for fast food, “martini” for bar, “high heel” for clothes). DoCoMo also paired with review company Zagat and Japanese ticket seller Pia early on, and the still-available emoji of the word “Soon” beneath a right arrow is an old Pia sign for a show that’s about to start.
MoMA’s acquisition of the original emoji set marks its latest step into the abstract realm of digital art. In 2010, the museum acquired the @ symbol, which senior curator Paola Antonelli at the time called “the only truly free” object in its collection. She noted its addition “relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary.”
Still, MoMA acquired the original emoji set through a licensing agreement with DoCoMo that lets the museum display them in various forms. The set will first be exhibited in the museum lobby in a display that incorporates 2-D graphics and animations.
“In a sense, what we’ve really acquired is a new communication platform,” Antonelli said. “But at the same time, the emoji themselves are ideographs, one of the most ancient ways to communicate. I love how the centuries are connected in that way.”