The Museum of Failure

Museum of Failure founder Samuel West with the failed Nokia N-Gage. Photo credit: CNN

Helsingborg is a small coastal town in southern Sweden. It has few claims to fame, chief among them being that it’s the closest that Sweden ever gets to Denmark, in fact, they’re separated by only 4km of water at this point. Football fans will be pleased to learn that Henrik Larsson, who played for Celtic and Barcelona, was born there, as was Tina Nordström, a Swedish chef (insert Muppet Show joke here) who presented PBS’ New Scandinavian Cooking. But Helsingborg now has another claim to fame, it’s the home of the Museum of Failure.

The history of museums is the history of the muse, and while typically we think of the great artistic and scientific achievements of mankind, the diversity of our museums is so much more varied. So that’s why we have the Garden Gnome Museum in Germany, the British Lawnmower Museum in, erm, England, and the heart-wrenching Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia. Each celebrates a muse, but that muse is itself no more than the reflection of the inner psychology of the individual, community, or society that has created it.

Such a position is easy to see with most curio museums, like those noted above, but the same principle holds true across the great museological spectrum where even the grand philanthropic museums largely reflect the status and generosity of the individual benefactor rather than the needs of the community. The national zeitgeist also plays an enormously important role. That the British Museum was conceived during a time of British ascension to the top of the national pile is significant, as is the fact that Britain’s heritage industry really found its feet in the 1980s as Britain slid further down the same pile. Similarly, if New Labour’s generous funding of the arts reflected an ambition to extend democracy through cultural access, the response since 2008’s financial crisis has been to emphasise participation, or in other words, to get as many people engaged with culture, both as a reaction to and a result of austerity.

And so we come to the Museum of Failure. It’s the muse of its founder, Samuel West, a clinical psychologist by trade, who I assume has seen many patients struggle with their own perceived failures. To explore this topic further he has gathered together a collection of 51 products that were intended as great innovations but failed, and spectacularly so. Billed with the tagline ‘Learning is the only way to turn failure into success’, the museum houses some interesting exhibits: the Apple Newton, an early and expensive PDA with terrible handwriting recognition, the Bic for Her range of pens because clearly women haven’t used normal pens for centuries anyway, and the notoriously intrusive Google Glass, a godsend to the Stasi, if only it had been invented in communist East Germany in the 1980s. With each of the products in the museum, we can laugh and shake our heads and wonder how they ever got made. Hindsight is such a wonderful thing, after all. You can marvel at the collective failures of these products in a short video about the museum below.

Our relationship to failure is an interesting one, and by definition, so is our relationship to success. And that’s what the Museum of Failure is driving at — the idea of success is inherently tied to the learning derived from the experience of failure. In innovation terms ‘fail and fail fast’ is the mantra, not because we need to fetishise our failures but because the reflection on why we failed can accelerate our learning to such a degree that we’ll get to success more quickly. As Samuel Beckett wrote “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

But the reality is that we would like to jump to success without the failure, that’s the bit that really counts after all, and the Museum of Failure’s collection provides a cautionary tale of what happens when you skip the learning part. But while the museum may focus on the importance of learning from failure, it’s also a cautionary tale about the process and timing of innovation. I assume that in each of the histories there is a story to be told about how ideas develop into products, the dominant culture that shaped decision-making, the processes that were or weren’t in place, or the hubris that overshadowed objective feedback.

So while the Museum of Failure is an interesting and amusing take on our rather stunted attitude to failure, I imagine that the real value of the museum is in the collective intelligence which would be gained from the detailed back stories of these products, rather than the cursory look we get in a museum. Let’s hope it’s forthcoming soon, and the final product won’t mirror that of the Museum of Failure’s sadly amusing collection.