This Museum Celebrates Failure

Success stories are everywhere, but we rarely see the hardships along the way.

By Christine Blau
Published 12 May 2018, 19:44 BST
The Museum of Failure teaches visitors that mistakes are necessary for innovation.
The Museum of Failure teaches visitors that mistakes are necessary for innovation.
Photograph by Museum of Failure

In 1994, American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson tried to capitalise on its cult status by launching a new product: 'Legendary' cologne. Who wouldn’t want the bottled scent of sweat, leather, and exhaust on the open road? Unsurprisingly this brand overextension failed to tempt diehard fans, but the company’s otherwise forgotten attempt at innovation later became the first object enshrined in a unique museum collection.

The Museum of Failure gives a new lease of life to more than 100 products that somehow went horribly wrong. Visitors find everything from abandoned tech gadgets, such as Apple Newton or Google Glass, to food items like Coca-Cola BlāK (a coffee-flavoured soft drink) and lasagne from Colgate Toothpaste’s foray into frozen dinners.

Innovation is risky business, which the museum founder, Dr. Samuel West, explores in his research as an organisational psychologist. Although progress depends upon trial and error, we often only hear about triumphs.

“I got tired of constant worship of success, how as a society we glorify success and stigmatise failure,” West explains. “I see success stories everywhere, but there’s usually no hint that some of the success involved failure or mistakes or any hardships along the way.”

He felt a eureka moment while visiting Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships, impressed by the immersive portrayal of an abstract concept like heartbreak. “I wanted to find a new way of communicating the importance of failure,” West says. He decided to open a place right away to champion mistakes and the museum found a home in Helsingborg, Sweden.

Objects in the collection must meet West’s criteria of innovation, rather than simple flops. “For example, those exploding Samsung Notes: that was bad quality control. They weren’t pushing boundaries or trying something new, they just [messed] up.”

Even still, research suggests the feeling of pleasure in other’s pain is universal human nature. The German language even coined a word for it: schadenfreude, which combines schaden (“damage, misfortune”) and freude (“joy”) to mean “joy in the misfortune of others.” Psychological studies on schadenfreude mostly focus on children, who are still relatively innocent to the outside world. A 2014 study found that children as young as two were likely to experience happiness in the pain of someone considered a rival. Research on adults shows factors like low self-esteem and a sense of inferiority steps up schadenfreude levels.

The Museum of Failure appeals to this innate wiring. Visitors can also experience catharsis from admitting their own mistakes by leaving Post-It notes on the wall or telling all in a failure confession booth.

Progress depends upon taking risk, and the Museum of Failure proves a success. As the collection expands, a satellite location opened in Los Angeles in December 2017. Some objects will embark on a world tour, beginning in Toronto in July (check the website for an upcoming location near you).

“Seeing big brands fail is liberating,” West says. “[Visitors feel they] can also fail when trying to learn something new or [testing] a new behaviour, or push my own boundaries or leave my comfort zone.”

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