LOS ANGELES — The guiding principle of the museum, generally speaking, is to showcase the highest expressions of art, culture, and science. The Museum of Failure turns this idea on its head, presenting over 100 flops, bombs, and fiascos of innovation, including cars and boats, food and drink, tech gadgets and sex toys. From its permanent location in Helsingborg, Sweden, the museum has recently embarked on a world tour, currently taking up the better part of the A+D Museum in Downtown Los Angeles.
Founded by Dr. Samuel West, a clinical psychologist whose “research focuses on innovation and what organizations can do to promote a climate of exploration and experimentation,” this vanity project-cum-museum features over 100 objects from his personal collection. It is less a design museum in the model of the Cooper Hewitt in New York, and more a light-hearted funhouse, part of a growing trend of pop-up exhibitions characterized by people-pleasing spectacle and Instagram-ready moments.
The introductory wall text invites visitors to “Come on in and feel better about the bad decisions you’ve made and find humor in the failures seen ’round the world.” The walls are peppered with inspirational quotes like, “Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail,” from Oprah. Object labels offer little in the way of rigorous analysis or thoughtful context, instead relying on corny dad humor to appeal to patrons. A pseudo-scientific chart on the side of each label purports to rate objects according to “Innovation,” “Design,” and “Implementation,” resulting in a final “Fail-o-Meter” score, with no explanation as to the metrics involved. In essence, the Museum of Failure is a BuzzFeed listicle come to life.
This is not to say there aren’t some impressive objects in the exhibition. It opens with a mint-condition pink Edsel, Ford’s overhyped car of the future whose name is synonymous with costly and embarrassing failure. Also of note is the Minitel, France’s early attempt at the internet.
A few quirkier items stand out as well, such as “No More Woof,” a device that supposedly translated dog thoughts into human speech (spoiler alert: it didn’t), or “Little Miss No Name,” a 1965 Hasbro doll dressed in rags, her hand extended in a begging pose, a teardrop spilling out of her enormous eye.
The majority of the exhibits, however, fail to delight, fascinate, or inform. For some, it’s unclear why they are even included, like the Segway. Surely not the ubiquitous personal transportation device it was intended to be, it is still used in office parks and malls across the country — hardly a total failure. The same goes for the Villa Savoye, the modernist masterpiece designed by Le Corbusier (who is not even mentioned on the label). Its owners may have found it “uninhabitable,” but labeling it a failure is a gross oversimplification.
Others are indeed notable failures, like the Spruce Goose (Howard Hughes’s massive plane whose maiden flight lasted but one minute) or the DeLorean DMC-12, the gull-wing doored sports car that was immortalized in Back to the Future, though the company was dragged under by its owner’s financial and drug charges. These, however, are illustrated with nothing more than small models — the Spruce Goose still in its box. There is an abundance of obsolete tech gadgets, mostly from the ’90s and aughts, each less interesting than the one before it. Then there are the sex gadgets, the most prominent of which is the “Shared Girlfriend,” a Chinese sex doll which users could rent by the day. West has his displayed in a European café diorama, where visitors can snap a selfie with her, though it’s not clear why this recent and little-known failure is worthy of the most elaborate installation in the show.
The one thing the museum doesn’t fail at is attracting visitors. On the day Hyperallergic stopped by last December, it was packed with people, each of whom paid $15 for a ticket (which also includes the $7 entry fee to the A+D Museum). It has been so popular, in fact, that its run has been extended through February 18, though it was originally slated to close on the 2nd. By contrast, the two remaining galleries at the A+D Museum, featuring exhibitions focused on the work of noted landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and drawings by visionary architect Sergei Tchoban, were sparsely attended, a few Failure visitors wandering over.
Perhaps it could be helpful to imagine the relationship between theme park museums like the Museum of Failure and conventional institutions as symbiotic rather than oppositional. They could increase the revenue of the more conventional exhibition spaces, and reward visitors who cross the threshold, serving as gateways to exhibitions more deeply engaged with exploring the breadth of contemporary art and material culture. Now that would be a truly successful innovation.
The Museum of Failure continues at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum (900 East 4th Street, Los Angeles) through February 18.