Antonelli was hired by the museum, in 1994, after answering an ad in i-D magazine. Since graduating from architecture school in Milan, where she grew up—and after deciding not to fulfill her earlier career goal of becoming an astronaut—she had been lecturing and also working as a part-time curator and as a staff member at design-and-architecture magazines like Domus and Abitare. She is modest about all this, though: the MoMA position, as she tells the story today, “just happened.”
And then something else just happened: the proliferation of digital technologies and media, and with it a whole new array of potential museum acquisitions with no tangible physical presence—for example, computer code. As Antonelli has written, in the digital age, physical possession of an object is no longer a “requirement for an acquisition”; curators are “free to tag the world,” acknowledging the existence of things that “cannot be had.” This revolution has defined much of Antonelli’s recent work at MoMA. Fittingly, if improbably, she was the one who designed the museum’s first Web site, in 1995. She was curating her first show, Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design, and managed to wrangle roughly $300 to establish a Web presence for the exhibit. “It was hilarious, because nobody knew what I wanted to do,” she tells me, over tea in her office. “Nobody wanted to sign off on it. Communications said, ‘It’s not communications.’ Marketing, Publications, they were all like”—she shrugs. Then she pauses.
“I’m going to show it to you,” she says, swiveling her chair toward her computer and clicking around for a moment. “Here it is! I coded it myself.” The site is sleek even by today’s standards, let alone by those of the GeoCities-ized mid-’90s. Antonelli used the sum MoMA had granted her to pay for taxis to and from New York’s School of Visual Arts, where she took classes in HTML.
In 2012, Antonelli founded MoMA’s Research and Development Department, a kind of in-house think tank that tries to determine, as she puts it, “how to translate the mission, and the whole spirit, of the museum—the DNA of the museum—for the future.” Design and Violence, for example, exists primarily online, with only a few objects displayed on 54th Street. The digital exhibit includes images of MoMA-curated objects paired with essays (from thinkers like Steven Pinker, Camille Paglia, and Anne-Marie Slaughter) considering the objects’ relevance. The undertaking also involves another experiment in meta‑museuming: a series of public debates in which experts discuss the ideas embodied by the collection. A recent event about 3-D-printed guns promised to consider “open-source design, the limits of gun laws and rights, and our assumptions about the ethics of design.”
Antonelli’s efforts figure into a larger debate: What, in the age of the Internet, is a museum actually for? People talk about museums as laboratories, Antonelli notes, and as “participatory” institutions; the challenge, though, is that people’s sense of participation itself is evolving thanks to the Internet’s influence. “What caused the problem with movie theaters is not Netflix, but YouTube,” she says. “What is making the old temples crumble is not smaller temples, but it’s rather this kind of polytheism—you know, you make your own gods.”
Which means that museums “really have to help people do their own form of art. And when you say art, it’s not Plasticine sculptures anymore, but it may be a spoken word.”
Or, she says, “it might be a video game.”