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The quirky ‘Museum of Failure’ celebrates creativity and innovation
Hari Sreenivasan: Before the greatest inventions and breakthroughs take place--there are uncounted unsuccessful ideas. Thomas Edison made thousands of attempts before he invented the lightbulb. But what if those first failures had stopped him?
An exhibit now touring the country is reinforcing that old adage: if at first you don't succeed--try, try again. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Megan Thompson visited the museum of failure's first stop in Minneapolis.
Samuel West: So probably the most sort of recognizable part, feature here…
Megan Thompson: Psychologist Samuel West recently showed off this exhibit he's spent years curating.
Samuel West: A new car line with a lot of innovative features.
Megan Thompson: A brightly-colored collection featuring all kinds of commercial products by big-name companies. At first glance it might look like a celebration of corporate success. Not quite.
Samuel West: It was Ford's biggest failure.
Announcer: Edsel. Designed for elegance.
Samuel West: It was available in so many different price ranges that people didn't understand. Is this a luxury car or is it a, you know, affordable car? What is it? This is a massive failure for Ford. In today's value, it's in the billions.
Megan Thompson: This is the Museum of Failure. A collection of more than 150 products that bombed. But this isn't about laughing at corporate flops.
Samuel West: I want people to realize and understand, truly understand, that if they don't take meaningful risks, there will be no progress.
Megan Thompson: It started when West was earning his Ph.D. in psychology, studying corporate behavior. He started noticing companies' reluctance to invest in the kind of experimentation that leads to innovation.
Samuel West: You explore new methods, new products, technology, et cetera. You're more likely than not to fail. In fact, 90 percent of those projects fail. And it became more and more apparent that the real obstacle to innovation is that people are afraid of failing. I was thinking, what can I do to communicate that we need to start accepting failure rather than stigmatizing failure?
Megan Thompson: West started collecting examples of products that had failed, and ended up opening a museum in Sweden in 2017. The Museum of Failure is now on a tour of the United States, kicking off just outside Minneapolis. The exhibit starts with failures in transportation.
Samuel West: We call it failure in motion.
Megan Thompson: Besides the Edsel, there's a Swedish warship from 1628 that was so unstable it sank just minutes after it first set sail... and a plastic bicycle designed by Volvo engineers that wobbled and even cracked when people rode it.
Samuel West: You're in the digital disaster area.
Megan Thompson: Digital disasters include Apple's hockey puck mouse that was hard to use, and a video chatting device made by Facebook. It wasn't a hit.
Samuel West: We have the Google Glass 2013. Put it on. Looking good.
Megan Thompson: OK. This feels a little awkward, I'm not going to lie.
It seemed revolutionary - a wearable computer that projects an image and takes pictures and video.
Samuel West: The main reason it failed was because of privacy issues.
Megan Thompson: Glass users could record others without them knowing.
Samuel West: We still deal with privacy issues today. But then I mean, this was like a shock. Google is fantastic at testing new things and they're not afraid of failing. It's pretty cool.
Megan Thompson: And we see how successful they are.
Samuel West: Absolutely.
Megan Thompson: Speaking as a psychologist, where does this fear of failure come from, within us?
Samuel West: A lot of it comes from our early experiences of failure. I mean, you, you spill your glass of juice on the breakfast table. You don't get praised for that. There's also this fundamental sort of, part of failure, which is the social shame. There's some functionality to that - we don't want a society where everybody is failing all the time. The problem is when it comes to progress, when it comes to learning, innovation, those rules don't really apply.
Megan Thompson: How can humans learn to be less afraid of failure?
Samuel West: The best way to overcome it is to get used to it.
Megan Thompson: For West, the collection is about sending a serious message. But he admits some of it is pretty funny, like some of the food flops. Bottled water for pets… a curious Colgate-branded beef lasagna frozen dinner… baby food maker Gerber's food for adults meant to be eaten out of the jar… and the famous zero-calorie fat substitute, Olestra.
Samuel West: You can eat as much junk food as you wanted to without getting fat, right? Problem was, it caused diarrhea.
Megan Thompson: And then, in the category of 'What Were They Thinking?'
Samuel West: This is the UroClub.
Megan Thompson: There's a golf club that doubles as -- well, just watch the commercial.
Announcer: It looks like an ordinary golf club, but contains a reservoir built into the grip to relieve yourself. The UroClub comes with a towel and appears that you're just checking out your club.
Samuel West: Doesn't draw any attention to you at all. Isn't awkward at all.
Megan Thompson: No. And you're carrying this around with you then for the rest of the game.
Samuel West: Yes. The commercials - they don't really specify what you do with it later. And so, it was a serious product developed by a urologist who played golf. And then it became, sold more as a gag gift.
Megan Thompson: The exhibit ends with a wall where people can confess to their own failures. 11-year-old Zachary Thao wrote 'my grades' because he just got an F in art class.
Zachary Thao: I got the lowest grade of my whole entire everything.
Megan Thompson: Did you learn from that?
Zachary Thao: Yeah, just to turn in assignments more faster and quicker.
Zachary Thao: His twin brother Logan couldn't think of anything but says he appreciates failure, nonetheless.
Logan Thao: I think failure is good because you can always work on that and improve it.
Zachary Thao: And that, says creator Samuel West, is the whole point.
Samuel West: When individuals come here and they see these brands fail, they feel liberated. Like if, if the big boys can fail, so can I. And I love that.
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