New York City’s Museum of Modern Art has added the world’s first emoji set to its permanent collection, The New York Times reports. The set includes 176 images created with just six colors on a 12 by 12 pixel grid for Japanese pagers in 1999.
For the most part, these early emoji, designed by Shigetaka Kurita, look completely unrelated to the 2,000 standardized emoji you can choose from today. Most notably — with the exception of some hearts — they don’t emote. There are almost no faces, and they look like icons that would be more useful on a map or an airplane safety booklet. They’re utilitarian, less sticker than label, even though they’re clearly still meant as a way to represent an idea with an icon. Looking at them it’s difficult to conceptualize how emoji eventually became a crucial part of mobile communication, and how we got to the point where we are now — iOS 10 actively suggests emoji replacements for words based on what it thinks you’re typing.
Today’s beloved emoji have what feel like deep, personal histories even though the American mainstream has only been using them for about five years (since emoji were first added to the iPhone). The thinking face emoji has its own complex set of meanings, as do the closed fist, the peach and the eggplant, the clapping hands, and the snake. That these meanings grew out of something so primitive makes it obvious why MoMA would want to display emoji — they’re undeniably the most popular and universally understood visual language that exists in contemporary society and they evolved from something basically useless. This is literally what a modern art museum is for!
The emoji collection will be on display in the Museum of Modern Art’s lobby starting this December.