Arts

The Museum of Failure shows you that failure is actually very good for you

Innovation isn't rosy and manicured — it's rough and dirty. The museum wants us to embrace failure as a stepping stone on the pathway to progress.

Innovation isn't rosy and manicured — it's rough and dirty

(Courtesy of Harbourfont Centre.)

There's a reason you don't remember Colgate beef lasagna. In the 1980s, the maker of oral hygiene products introduced a line of frozen dinners — or so the legend of marketing misfires goes. The gambit failed, likely because the brand "used and recommended by most dentists" wasn't also consumers' first choice when shopping the freezer aisle for a quick and tasty supper.

Today, the company does not recognize the lasagna as one of its products. But a box of the fabled ready meal (recreated with some artistic license) is perhaps the crown jewel of a newish museum collection dedicated to corporate flops, flunks and fizzles.

(Courtesy of Harbourfont Centre.)

The Museum of Failure, founded by Helsingborg, Sweden-based organizational psychologist Samuel West, includes 130 such objects — things like Orbitz, the '90s Canadian fruit-flavoured drink "texturally enhanced" with brightly-coloured, gelatin-like little particles suspended in the beverage, or My Friend Cayla, the talking, listening, internet-connected children's doll that could serve targeted ads to kids and was banned in Germany as an illegal surveillance device. The Museum of Failure is making its Canadian debut at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto with a pop-up featuring 26 highlights. It arrived as part of Brave: the Festival of Risk and Failure, a multidisciplinary program exploring the place of gambles and goof-ups in the creative process.

The Museum of Failure was founded because West, whose research focuses on innovation, was fed up with the cookie-cutter success stories we regularly encounter — the ones starring "shiny happy people" who are rich and beautiful and triumph in everything they do. That hasn't been his experience of how innovation happens or what it generally looks like. "The real story isn't rosy and manicured," he says. "It's rough and dirty." There are stumbles and falls. "Failure is a much better teacher than success." It is our natural way of learning. "Children learn to walk by falling down; we learn a language by saying things the wrong way and being corrected; every skill we learn, we do so by trial and error."

The collection suggests that if we're interested in studying progress, then what we ought to pay closer attention to is our failures. They're what really belong on the gallery plinth.

(Courtesy of Harbourfont Centre.)

The museum's first acquisition was a bottle of Harley Davidson cologne. It's a classic example of a brand over-extension, West explains. 20 years ago, the motorcycle manufacturer tried its logo on a series of eau de toilettes. A significant stretch for the company's rugged image, Harley's usually loyal following wasn't along for the ride — and without them, the perfume raced off to the clearance bin. Like the infamous Colgate lasagna, there are a great many examples in the Museum of Failure of a corporation that ventures into a radically new space confident that its brand will tolerate it, when brands actually tend to be fickle and finicky things to manoeuver.

Negligence, redundancy, incompetence — those failings are avoidable. But when someone is attempting something they've never done before, when they're testing their limits, those are the failures West argues we should embrace.- Chris Hampton

With such a wealth of data, the million dollar question is: has the museum been able to boil down the reasons why things commonly fail?

"There are themes," West says. Some of those themes include brand over-extensions and products that are over-hyped, such as the Ford Edsel or Google Glass; another loose category he's identified is monstrosities made by designers who strong-arm past critical feedback. But, for the most part, he says, failure is still mystical. "I think that's what fascinates me." He describes the paradigm with a twist on the opening of Anna Karenina: "All successful innovations are alike, but each failure fails in its own spectacular and interesting way."

(Courtesy of Harbourfont Centre.)

The museum's main goal, then, is to destigmatize failure and to reposition it as a stepping stone on the pathway to progress. That notion applies to our private lives just as well as corporations. "The same way I want organizations to accept failure — to be able to discuss failure and to learn from it — the same goes for us as individuals," West says. "In your social life, in your family life, in your professional life, failure is inherent to the human condition." The trick, he says, is to recognize the good failures from the bad sort. Negligence, redundancy, incompetence — those failings are avoidable. But when someone is attempting something they've never done before, when they're testing their limits, those are the failures West argues we should embrace.

In one vitrine, visitors will find a stack of Oreo packaging. The creme-stuffed cookie, which has been a best-seller since its introduction in 1912, is by most definitions a wild success. But as the curator's note tells us, a huge number of new Oreo products — all those experimental, seasonal, limited-edition flavours that routinely attract media attention — fail on store shelves. The company has adopted an evolutionary approach to innovation: it tests new ideas on the market and what succeeds survives. They understand their mistakes as part of their growth.

Maybe we would all do well, the museum suggests, to be a bit more like Oreos.

The Museum of Failure is on view at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto until September 16, 2018.

About the Author

Chris Hampton is a Toronto-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton