Museum Celebrates Sweet Smell of... FailureHistorians in the News
tags: museums, capitalism, cultural history, public history, consumer culture, Failure
Failure is definitely an option. It can even be a requirement—at least at the exhibition space in Brooklyn’s Industry City. Here you can see surviving examples of more than 150 failed products (or descriptions and videos). Some are so bizarre (a hollow golf club designed for male urination between swings) or so outlandish (a rigid plastic “rejuvenating” mask studded with electrodes) that they never had a chance. Some might have been plausible if only they had made economic sense. How about Howard Hughes’s airplane designed to carry heavy World War II weaponry, made out of birch and mocked as the “Spruce Goose”? We see a photograph of the one plane that was completed—way too late—in 1947, costing about $250 million in today’s dollars.
Such are the offerings at the Museum of Failure, which is really a world-traveling exhibition that began in Helsingborg, Sweden. Its ever-expanding terrain embraces monumental icons like RMS Titanic, the Ford Edsel and New Coke, but it also offers more “creepy” examples (as the museum puts it) like Mattel’s mid-1970s version of Barbie’s younger sister, Skipper: Raise her arm and her breasts grow.
The museum is the creation of Samuel West, a Swedish clinical psychologist and consultant on innovation. He once thought the museum would end up as an example in its own exhibition. Its original 2017 bricks-and-mortar home closed. But that led to the touring show, which ultimately failed to fail in Vienna, Amsterdam, Jeddah, London, Copenhagen, Milan, Seoul, Paris and Los Angeles. It seems to be just as unsuccessful at failing in Brooklyn: Its stay has been extended to June 18 and other American venues are being discussed. If—to paraphrase the maxim—success has many parents while failure is an orphan, Mr. West is running a global orphanage.
How does he treat his charges? Sometimes with mockery, particularly in a display called “Make America Fail Again” that is devoted to a failed board game, a failed airline and failed resorts bearing the name of President Donald Trump.
But overall Mr. West means to demonstrate failure’s virtues, offering tributes like Henry Ford’s: “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Elon Musk is also cited: “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” That is one reason why there were celebrations recently at his company SpaceX when its rocket exploded four minutes after launch; it hadn’t, at least, blown up on the launch pad.