Of the enormous permanent collections owned by major museums, only a very, very small portion of artworks get to see the light of day at any given time. Many institutions have sought to change that through technology, whether by opening online archives or building more experimental projects to display work involving AI. Then there’s SFMOMA, which launched an SMS service that responds to the words, phrases, and emojis you text it with a context-appropriate piece of art from its 34,678 works.
The service, called Send Me SFMOMA, works like this: you text “send me” followed by text or emoji to the number “572-51,” and receive a work that corresponds to the prompt. Texting the heart emoji, for instance, might bring back Ron Nagle’s 2011 piece Assisted Loving. Alternatively, asking the museum to “send me something pink” could result in a 1997 drawing by Nam June Paik, Untitled (Two Robots). As Jay Mollica, SFMOMA’s creative technologist and the brains behind the initiative, notes in a blog post, the words or emoji in the text prompt a query to the SFMOMA collection API. The algorithm digs through the museum’s extensive, digitized collection and its metadata, and pulls out a piece that responds to the request.
The tool isn’t perfect—peppering it with emoji requests brought back more than a couple error messages that suggest I try something easier, and uncommon words will get the same result. But in general its unexpectedly addicting, and charming in its associations of beautiful, compelling, often historic works prompted by something as banal as texting. And with so many words to try and works to pull from, it’s an inspired tool for discoverability. The crystal ball emoji, for instance, brings up Walker Evans’s Untitled [Palmist Building], and the rainbow emoji a Martin Parr photo of a sprinkle donut. Requesting something “design” and “architecture” brought up, respectively, a photo from the great graphic design magazine Emigre and a lecture series from Columbia University’s Architecture School from 1992.
SFMOMA launched the beta version of the service earlier this year, and got such a strong response—more than 12,000 text messages in four days—that the original 10-digit phone number was blacklisted by major mobile carriers because they thought it was spam. The museum released the new version with the shortened number this week. The tool’s elements of play and surprise seem to have resonated—and might be something to keep in mind for other museums that are opening up their massive collections and introducing new ways to parse them.