A traveling exhibition currently in New York looks back at the world’s losers, misfires and flops, with the principal aim of celebrating failure’s virtues

Failure is definitely an option. It can even be a requirement—at least at the exhibition space in Brooklyn’s Industry City. Here you can see surviving examples of more than 150 failed products (or descriptions and videos). Some are so bizarre (a hollow golf club designed for male urination between swings) or so outlandish (a rigid plastic “rejuvenating” mask studded with electrodes) that they never had a chance. Some might have been plausible if only they had made economic sense. How about Howard Hughes’s airplane designed to carry heavy World War II weaponry, made out of birch and mocked as the “Spruce Goose”? We see a photograph of the one plane that was completed—way too late—in 1947, costing about $250 million in today’s dollars.

Such are the offerings at the Museum of Failure, which is really a world-traveling exhibition that began in Helsingborg, Sweden. Its ever-expanding terrain embraces monumental icons like RMS Titanic, the Ford Edsel and New Coke, but it also offers more “creepy” examples (as the museum puts it) like Mattel’s mid-1970s version of Barbie’s younger sister, Skipper: Raise her arm and her breasts grow.

The museum is the creation of Samuel West, a Swedish clinical psychologist and consultant on innovation. He once thought the museum would end up as an example in its own exhibition. Its original 2017 bricks-and-mortar home closed. But that led to the touring show, which ultimately failed to fail in Vienna, Amsterdam, Jeddah, London, Copenhagen, Milan, Seoul, Paris and Los Angeles. It seems to be just as unsuccessful at failing in Brooklyn: Its stay has been extended to June 18 and other American venues are being discussed. If—to paraphrase the maxim—success has many parents while failure is an orphan, Mr. West is running a global orphanage.

How does he treat his charges? Sometimes with mockery, particularly in a display called “Make America Fail Again” that is devoted to a failed board game, a failed airline and failed resorts bearing the name of President Donald Trump.

But overall Mr. West means to demonstrate failure’s virtues, offering tributes like Henry Ford’s: “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Elon Musk is also cited: “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” That is one reason why there were celebrations recently at his company SpaceX when its rocket exploded four minutes after launch; it hadn’t, at least, blown up on the launch pad.

Sometimes, though, failure’s virtues seem submerged in stupidity. Surely that is the case with German plans for a “spray-on condom” (2006-08); instructions were to “insert penis into an apparatus to coat with melted latex and then wait 3 minutes for the latex to dry.”

Other failures inspire sadness at the loss, like the astonishing iBOT wheelchair (2003-09), which could negotiate rough terrain, climb stairs and lift its user to standing height.The exhibition suggests it failed because of its cost—over $25,000. (What we don’t learn is that a successor has been released by Mobius Mobility.)

Some failures inspire dismay, like the Kent Micronite filter (1952-56), which was sold as the “greatest health protection in cigarette history”—through its use of asbestos; lawsuits were still being filed in 2018.

Another failure here provides an early glimpse of virtue-signaling at play: In 1965, Hasbro introduced Little Miss No-Name as a realistic alternative to Barbie; the doll is barefoot and crying, dressed in rags, and holds out her hand as if beseeching alms.

There are also a few examples of the museum itself failing—or rather, faltering. Some products declared dead actually live on, such as ethanol bio-fuel. Here, we read, it is “viewed as a huge failure that cost American taxpayers billions of dollars,” but an Energy Department website shows legal and financial life-support going full throttle.

Other quibbles? Surgical instruments for lobotomies are less evidence of medical failure than ignorance; they are more like a jar of leeches than a faulty tracheal implant (which is also shown).

And even the museum agrees that the displayed Trabant automobile was not a commercial failure. Three million were sold between 1957 and 1991; waiting lists could last 13 years. Yet it had no turn signals or seat belts or fuel gauge or fuel pump; it used a two-stroke engine and could readily catch fire. But no doubt its manufacturer—the East German state—succeeded on its own terms. By exercising rigid control accompanied by self-aggrandizing declarations, it created a product that, in its thorough mediocrity, supposedly reflected egalitarian ideals.

Otherwise, failures abound, with many caused by technological change. We see relics from Blockbuster (1985-2010), which once had more than 9,000 stores renting tapes and DVDs; it was killed, we are told, by Netflix’s DVD-by-mail program. But disruption did not end there. Netflix’s business was also at risk by the advent of streaming, which is why it began its own service in 2007. Netflix could have failed as grandly as Blockbuster had it not transformed itself (even if its DVD lending program is only coming to an end this September).

The temptation is to look at success as if it were inevitable, though that is only in retrospect. In actuality, we are always surrounded by failure—and not only in the museum. But no need to worry. We know so much better than those represented here! Onward!

Read the article from The Wall Street Journal here.

Learn more about leasing office space at IC here.

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