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An Interview with Samuel West

Updated: Apr 16, 2019



While most museums focus on the triumphs of humanity, and, like history, are written by winners, the Museum of Failure takes a different approach: recognizing the fiascoes, the disasters, the duds-- an equally, if not more, entertaining and important endeavor.


Inspired by the Museum of Broken Relationships and a lifetime of being bombarded with success stories, the travelling pop-up is the pet project of psychologist Samuel West. West had used failed inventions in various workshops and lectures prior to opening the museum, but the Museum of Failure allowed for his philosophy and these failed products to reach a wider audience. After opening in Sweden, the museum went viral, inspiring people worldwide to go forth and fail even before the exhibition toured.


I saw the exhibit while it was at the Architecture and Design Museum in LA and immediately felt a sense of comfort when I was met with an assemblage of various failed projects. In light of these historical failures, my stack of rejection letters became an opportunity to better myself; my pitches that had been declined by editors were just a necessary part of the process; my various academic shortcomings were not a condemnation but an obstacle I could overcome. And my experiences (and the feelings that came with them) were not unique. With artifacts spanning across a multitude of time periods, it quickly became apparent that no one was immune to failure. The infamous Edsel was on display as well as a rentable sex doll from Beijing company Touch. But my absolute favorite part was the Failure Confessional, in which visitors to the museum were invited to share their own failures via post-it notes. Just a few years earlier, I had started my own project to normalize artistic failures: a zine in which I invited friends and peers to submit artwork they considered "bad," so needless to say I really responded to the ethos of the exhibit. A few months later I contacted Mr. West about collaborating with the Museum of Failure on an exhibition related to artistic flops. That project didn't end up going anywhere (well, at least not yet, maybe next time the museum is in the U.S.A.) but there's something downright appropriate about failing with the museum of failure.


What's your favorite failed product?

Olestra

1996-1999 »100% Satisfaction, 0% Guilt.« These fat-free chips contain the controversial additive Olestra. During the low-calorie craze of the 1990s, several kinds of low-calorie chips were launched. What could be better than chips without any calories? Olestra was approved as an additive in 1996, but it quickly lost its popularity due to unpleasant side effects. The body could not absorb the substance, which in larger amounts caused gastric cramps and diarrhea. Olestra and the chips became known for causing diarrhea.


What is your biggest failure?

My biggest failure so far has been to not be careful enough about my business partners. It has ended up costing my a lot of hassle and money.


What's the best reaction anyone's ever had to the museum?

When visitors get so inspired that they immediately decide to take meaningful risks. One visitor decided to finally open the small hotel he had dreamed of, but never dared due to his fear of failure.


When did you get the idea to create the Museum of Failure? In the summer of 2017. I was on vacation in Croatia with my family. A visit to the Museum of Broken Relationships inspired me.


What's your favorite location the museum had been to? I like the location in Shanghai. Smack in the middle of the city!! I also liked the experience of taking the museum to Saudi Arabia.


Does the nature of failure differ country to country? For example, is there a distinctly American way to fail?

Not really, Americans are not as ashamed of failure as many other countries. In many countries in Asia, there is a large shame associated with failure.


Is there a limit to the number of failures a successful person usually has? Or an average number of failures successful people usually have?

Not at all. All success requires the failures. So usually the more successful a person is, the more they have also failed.


What's next for the museum? Will there ever be a permanent Museum of Failure?

The museum is touring. So there are no plans to establish a permanent location. In the next year new expansions include Artificial Intelligence failures, as well as failures in social innovation.


Do you think it's possible to fail successfully? What do you think is the best example of this?

Absolutely! Learning is the only process that turns failure into success. A good failure is for example:

Betamax 1975-2002

In 1975, Sony launched an innovative home video tape recorder called Betamax. When JVC released the competing VHS format a year later, it started a decade long videotape-format war. Betamax was higher quality than VHS, but it was also more expensive. The VHS could record a full movie, whereas the Betamax was initially limited to only one hour. While Sony refused to license the format to other firms, JVC built an ecosystem of partners and offered a greater selection of films. By the middle of the 1980s, VHS had won the war. This classic story of tech innovation failure demonstrates that technical excellence and being first to market is not enough. Sony learned from their failure. They successfully introduced the digital Compact Disc (CD) by strategically partnering with the music industry. The company bought a record company and is now a giant in both entertainment and electronics.



Images used in collage via @museumoffailure