In the series I Made a Big Mistake, PopSci explores mishaps and misunderstandings, in all their shame and glory.
On my first attempt to find the Museum of Failure, I made a wrong turn while navigating through the massive, often unlabeled buildings nestled in Brooklyn’s Industry City, and accidentally stumbled across The Innovation Lab instead. Consider it a tiny mistake.
The Museum of Failure is not a permanent addition to the eccentric collection of galleries in New York, but is rather a traveling pop-up that aims to engage people all over the world with the idea of making mistakes. It was created in 2016 by Samuel West, an Icelandic-American psychologist who worked with companies on increasing their innovation and productivity.
Previously, he had found during his research that the most innovative companies were those that have a high degree of exploration and experimentation, which of course, means that they’re also going to have a high rate of failure. By making room for failure, companies could paradoxically tap into an opportunity for learning and for growth.
West started collecting projects that were deemed failures, but he kept looking for a new way to communicate the research. Inspiration struck when he visited the Museum of Broken Relationships in Los Angeles. “Then, I realized that the concept of a museum is very flexible,” he tells PopSci.
As of this year, the pop-up has made stops in Sweden, France, Italy, mainland China, and Taiwan. In the US, it was in Los Angeles for a spell, and after New York, they will pack up shop and reopen in Georgetown in Washington, DC on September 8. The reception has surpassed all of West’s expectations. It was so popular in New York that its opening was extended for a month. “I thought it was a nerdy thing,” he says. “And to see how it resonates with people around the world has been fantastic.”
The main objective of the museum is to help both organizations and individuals appreciate the important role of failure—a deviation from desired outcomes, if you want to think about it in a more clinical way—in progress and innovation. “If we don’t accept failure as a way forward and as a driving force of progress and innovation, we can’t have the good stuff either,” West says. “We can’t have the tech breakthroughs or the new science, and products. Even ideologies need to fail before we figure out what works.”
Despite being marked as failures, most of the items in the museum are actually innovations, meaning that they tried something novel, and attempted to challenge the norm by proposing something that was interesting and different.
The museum itself felt like a small expo center, and is composed of a hodgepodge of stalls that group products loosely together by categories and similarity. There’s not a set way to move through the space. “A lot of people, I’ve found, are sort of lost without a path, and they kind of don’t know where to begin,” says Johanna Guttmann, a director of the exhibit. “The people that really get it automatically are in product design, or marketing.”
The team has also designed an accompanying app that guides museum-goers through the various items on display. The app has a QR code scanner, which takes users inside a back catalog of more than 150 “failures” across themes like “the future is (not) now,” “so close, and yet,” “bad taste,” “digital disasters,” “medical mishaps,” and more. Each product on show not only comes with a detailed description of its history and impact, but is also ranked on a scale of one to eight for innovation, design, execution, and fail-o-meter.
Familiar names of people, companies, and products pepper the exhibit, like Elon Musk, Theranos, MoviePass, Fyre Festival, Titanic, and Google Glass. It features both the notorious and newsworthy, from Boeing 737 Max, CNN+, Facebook Libra, Hooters Air, to Blockbuster. Donald Trump has his own section. “I like the ones with the good story,” West says.
Some of these stories are intended to challenge the perception of failure. “The reason for failure many times is outside of you doing something wrong,” says Guttmann. For many products, it was a case of bad timing, money issues, and in the case of the Amopé Foot File, it was so successful at doing what it was supposed to do that it was a failure for the company profit-wise.
“Kodak invented the digital camera in the 70s only to be bankrupt by digital photography,” says West. “So it was a failure not of tech, but a thing of adapting and updating their business model.”
Some failures showcase the importance of persistence and reiterating on certain ideas. “Nintendo, for example, tried early on in the 90s to make their games more interactive and immersive by making them 3D,” West noted. They made a 3D console that was terrible and gave kids headaches, and they made the poorly received Power Glove that hooked up to a TV through wonky antennas. Even though the execution was bad, the idea of motion control stuck, and Power Glove became a precursor for the popular Nintendo Wii console.
Placed at the end of the exhibit is a wall titled “Share your failure,” and it’s plastered with sticky notes. This is Guttman’s favorite part of the experience. “It has taken on a life of its own,” she says. People leave both funny and serious anecdotes behind, including microwave failures, relationship disasters, and personal tragedies. “The anonymity is part of the appeal,” she notes.
Guttman likes to say that the 150 or so items in the museum are really just props for conversation. She sees its potential for opening dialogues around the culture, especially since in countries like the US, there’s encouragement to move fast and break things, or “fake it until you make it,” whereas in other countries, there is a greater emphasis on constant perfectionism. For certain people, the experience has been cathartic—West recalls visitors who have cried at the wall of failure.
Guttman heard recently in a podcast from an expert who said that too much of US education is designed for success. “His point was that every semester should involve a task that’s designed for failure because otherwise, the students build no resilience, and they don’t know what to do with frustration,” she says. “We say that failure is a part of life, and in an educational setting in particular, students should experience some type of failure to learn that they should try different things, deal with it in different ways.”