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INTERVIEW: The authenticity of failure

The Museum of Failure, which opened first in Helsingborg, Sweden, is coming to the end of a short stint in downtown Los Angeles. What is it all about? Think of all the gadgets, products, and gizmos from your youth, or even your parent's, and try to count the ones that never evolved or popped up again in your adulthood. That's the Museum of Failure. It all began with Samuel West – a Swedish clinical psychologist – who thought the world might be as interested as he was in revisiting some of recent history's best consumer duds. He was right.

With its Swedish visitor numbers alone reaching 17,000 in about three months, the concept of exhibiting failure has proven to work. The touring exhibition is made up of an international collection of more than 100 innovation failures. It omits the hits and chronicles the misses of some of the world's most well-known product corporations. In doing so, it not only gives insight into the volatile business of innovation, but demonstrates how valuable the history of objects can be in helping us to build perspective around the way the live today. Think spoke to Dr Samuel West to find out why he believes people are so drawn to failure.

Museum of Failure – Penguin Vision Photography

"I think seeing these multinational mega corporations fail liberates us as individuals – if they can fail when they try something new, then we can too," West says as we ask the simple question – why are people so thrilled by other people's mistakes? When elaborating on the museum's collection as a whole, he talks about human beings' natural inclination to internalise feelings of failure once they experience them, to bury them, push them aside, and try as hard as possible to forget them. But the reality is that failure is one of humankind's greatest equalisers because it happens to everyone, even the big guns. So it follows that pausing to take in the unfruitful experiments of those who we hold in highest power "makes failure less intimidating".

I’m Back and You’re Fired! Trump, the Game – Penguin Vision Photography

"I think [people's fascination is] about a sense of genuineness, or that the failures represent something real. Authentic. We are used to corporate perfection. Every company (and government organisations as well) have a team of brand managers and media savvy experts who’s job it is to make everything seem perfect. No matter what".

Although West's focus for this museum's exhibits is on the world of consumer goods, his description of the constructs of perfection in that world easily extends to other, more social parts of our lives – especially the life we lead online. In a reality where standards are set by universalising image filters, social media influencers, and a saturation of increasingly context-free sound bites, it does feel like we could all use a little bit more exposure to failure.

Apple MessagePad, a.k.a. the Newton – Sofie Lindberg

For West, the most captivating thing about the exhibits are the stories they have to tell, and the mirror they hold up to our lives and our progression. His criteria for including a work of failure in the museum is its inability to achieve its expected outcome, and the product's failed journey subsequently becomes the element that most intrigues him.

"I like the exhibits that tell a good story. The fall of Kodak is a great story. The Chinese sex doll rental – Shared Girlfriend – is another great story. Olestra (1996) is funny - a calorie free fat substitute that ended up causing anal leakage (diarrhoea), that's pretty good as well. Visitors like the Rejuvenique face mask. It shocks your face for fifteen minutes (the instructions suggest [you should use it] every day for three months) to make you as beautiful as Linda Evens".

Everyone fails at some point – that seems to be the museum's overriding take-away. But we also wondered if Dr West thought any of his exhibits had potential for life after failure?

"Oh yes! Pepsi Crystal is an example. It has been re-released several times since the early 90s. I also hope someone re-launces the Swedish plastic bike Itera. It deserves a second chance".

Don't we all. The LA Museum of Failure pop-up closes on the 4th February, but the museum will be back in Sweden by spring of this year. Till then, it might be a good time to take stock of our own back-log of mistakes, dust them off, and look at them in a brand new light.


To read more about the Museum of Failure and its upcoming events, visit their website.

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