Figure of cat and kitten, late 19th–early 20th century. Painted brass. Gift of Anonymous Donor. 1949-49-35.

Cat Memes of Antiquity

The internet looooves silly cats. This we all know.

The Walker Art Center even had a film festival last year celebrating cat videos, which it dubbed "one of the internet’s most popular phenomena."

Stalking cat has 38 million views.

Perhaps it's not just people on the internet who love silly cats, but people in general. All people. Even pre-internet people—vid and img deprived societies of yore.

With that in mind, check out this figurine of a big cat spanking a little cat with a stick. It's in the collection of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Yup.

Around the office at the Museum, we love looking at this thing. In meetings, when we're talking about this or that project/interface/video/exhibition featuring collection objects, Spanking Cat is often suggested for use as a demonstration item. When I draw wireframes, Spanking Cat is right in there as my placeholder image. Et cetera.

One particularly punchy day, we indulged in a few YouTube vids of people actually spanking their cats. Apparently this is a thing. I had no idea.

After said silliness subsided, a serious question arose: what is the design function of Spanking Cat?

Now that we've learned how much cats actually love to be spanked—seriously—perhaps the miniature was intended as a reminder to a cat owner to spank his cats once in a while to make them happy. While little is known about this figurine, it may represent the anthropomorphizing of animals common in the Victorian era, which depicted animals as mannered beings that followed social and moral codes. I think the statue is a whimsical allegory for human parenting.

The Museum database tells us that this statue was chosen by IDEO when the firm did a "Collections Selects" exhibition in 2007 (Collections Selects exhibitions allow renowned people and/or organizations to hand-pick a few collection objects from over 200,000 for public display). It was suggested that it must be a database mistake—why would an esteemed firm such as IDEO choose such a weird tchotchke for their exhibition? I am sure that they chose it for kitsch appeal. 

Historical mysteries aside, I think Spanking Cat's teachable moment is that humans have always loved weird cats, even before the internet.

 

Museum Number: 
1949-49-35