Failure is Progress
Anyone who has been following the technology sphere has probably heard phrases like “fail faster, fail harder” or Mark Zuckerberg’s popular saying of “move fast and break things.” Failure is commonplace to innovators and engineers; in fact it’s embraced as part of the process. Turning to science and technology museums, where the history of innovation is shown, there are usually only successes visible. Visitors to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum will see the Wright Brothers’ Flyer, the first machine capable of flight and other machines that were firsts. It is full of successes; failures are not shown or are swept under the rug. This tendency for science and technology museums to omit failures results in an incomplete view of the history of science and technology. There is a museum in particular that is attempting to analyze various failed projects aptly named the Museum of Failure. Through its exhibits, its Bic for Her pens exhibit in particular, the museum attempts to show the importance of failure in innovation and how to learn from failure. Beyond just the technological failures, museums also need to talk about the wider impact and measures of a technology. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has an online exhibit called Hawaii by Air that has missed the opportunity to discuss the wider impact of technology on society and failings beyond the technology itself. Wallace argues against romanticising technological progress as linear progression of successes. Taking this a step further, failure is indeed progress and should be accurately represented in science and technology museums to give a full picture of the history of innovation.
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To discuss how failure should be represented in the museum, we should first define what we mean by failure. Adam Savage, co-host of the TV show Mythbusters and maker, has had his fair share of failures. When talking about failure in a Maker Faire speech he talked about failure with a lowercase f and failure with capital f. This gets at the idea that failure is a spectrum, ranging from small hiccups to large disasters. Failures at the smaller end of the spectrum are generally those that are common and widely accepted as a part of the innovative process. These are failures like failing when trying something new or a prototype for a new machine fails. These failures are small and are not world ending. These tend to be easier to talk about than the bigger failures. Failures at the larger end of the spectrum are generally disasters where people get hurt or worse and in the aftermath it is important to put in place processes for preventing it from happening again. It is important to discuss various failures along this spectrum, no matter how hard they are to talk about, in order to educate and learn from these failures. It is important to note that when talking about success or failure in terms of technological progress the measure used is whether that technology did what it was supposed to do. This leaves out the wider impacts of a technology, whether it does what it was supposed to do or not. When talking about technological progress in the museum we need to not only talk about technological failures but also failures in a technology’s wider impact and societal impact.
The Museum of Failure is a museum dedicated to discussing various failures in the innovative sphere. The main focus is commercial products “that crashed and burned.” The mission of the museum is “to convey that the acceptance of failure is necessary in order for innovation and progress to truly succeed.” The museum has clearly taken to heart that failure is part of the innovative process and that this needs to be communicated to the public. The creator of the museum Dr. Samuel West is a psychologist and innovation researcher. In an interview about the museum he mentioned that “80 to 90 percent of innovations actually fail.” If this is true then by only showing the successes and ignoring the failures science and technology museums are missing 80 to 90 percent of the history of technological progress. By not showing failure museums are refusing to give the visitor the full picture of technological progress. A good example of the kind of exhibits the Museum of Failure and their educational value is their exhibit on Bic for Her. Bic for Her was meant to be pens specifically for women “to fit comfortably in a woman’s hand.” They came in stereotypically feminine colors, purple and pink. Many viewed these pens as sexist and there was significant backlash. Bic did eventually apologize for their miss-step. This product was a failure, not because of the technical properties of the pen, but because Bic did not think about the users of their pens. They did not think that the pens could be considered sexist and that people would be offended by the implication that women needed special pens. It discusses failure in terms of the impact of the pen in it’s societal context which raises different and interesting conversations about sexisim and diversity. This example also supports the museum’s mission of normalizing and accepting failure as Bic continues to be a successful company today. It shows that failure is something that can be overcome and is something that everyone experiences as part of the process.
Another example of needing to look at failure in the museum is to look at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, specifically their online Hawaii by Air exhibit. This exhibit discusses how air travel to Hawaii was quite hard in the earlier days of aviation and how as air travel improved so did the journey to Hawaii. It also briefly mentions how the increase in ease of air travel impacted Hawaii itself. The section of the online exhibit on “First Flights” discusses some technological failures and crashes. While it mentions that there were many crashes in the early days due to the difficulty of weather and technical difficulties, it does not go into detail on the problems faced by aviators flying to Hawaii or between islands. A key importance to discussing failure is describing how engineers eventually go past these problems or how they learned from these failures, which the museum did not do as well. The exhibit does briefly mention that Hawaii was forcibly annexed by the United States and very briefly mentions the negative pushback from locals over growing tourism. Hawaii by Air misses the opportunity to talk about the wider impact that improved air travel and therefore increased tourism has had on Hawaii. It doesn’t really mention how that tourism can be bad. Tourism can help an economy but by selling the exotic idea of Hawaiian culture it can be insulting to natives and reinforce stereotypes. While the various iterations of air travel could be seen as successful technically it doesn’t mean that air travel’s cultural impact is a success too.
This is most certainly not the first time the National Air and Space Museum has been criticised. Michal McMahon gave a critical review of the museum, claiming that while “celebrating the romance of aviation” the museum also gave the message “of the unmixed blessings of continued technical advance and, by implication, economic growth.” He believed that the museum only gives a positive message about technological progress and does not adequately address critical views and impacts of technology. He found while traversing the museum that “the accompanying labels provide little instruction on their [the artifacts] development, which could include the process of innovation [or] the social context” of these machines. The museum did not give much information on the process of innovation, especially the failures or shortcomings of the machines. McMahon goes on to mention how the museum used upbeat language and focused on the romanticism of aviation. It seems counterintuitive to leave failure out of the narrative, as it’s easy enough to incorporate smaller failures into the narrative of the underdog or the hero. Stories without failure and challenge are boring, so incorporating those failures into the narrative can improve the story as opposed to taking away the romanticism of aviation. McMahon discusses the backstory of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as it was founded in part to inspire future pilots and engineers and so the museum focuses on the successes. If that is the goal of the National Air and Space Museum then it is important to show that failure is a part of the process and the measure of a technology is not purely technical. Future engineers should be thinking about the wider impact of the technology they are creating. Future engineers should be taught to be ethical engineers and incorporating failure into the narrative of aviation can help to do so. In his criticisms on the display of industrialization, Wallace argues that instead of displaying industrialization as something over and done with, it should be communicated as a part of what led to today’s world and how it has had lasting effects on wider society, not just the progression of technology. Hawaii by Air is an example of how opportunities to show the wider picture of technology is missed.
The way in which McMahon describes his criticisms of the National Air and space Museum ties into Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s idea of “the agency of display.” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that a “display not only shows and speaks, it also does.” This gives useful language to describe why it is important to show failure in science and technology museums and what a display without failure “does”. McMahon mentions that “important questions are often obscured” in the museum. Displays that only fleetingly mention failure, obscures that part of that object’s history. Not mentioning failure at all can erase that part of history to the viewer. Hawaii by Air obscures or erases the negative aspects of air travel by not addressing them. In contrast by showing Bic for Her pens the Museum of Failure highlights a failure and sparks discussion on why it failed and what we can learn from that failure.
Failure is a part of technological progress, as seen in the Museum of Failure. The museum’s show of the Bic for Her pens helps to normalize failure and show that it is something that can be overcome. It also starts discussions surrounding sexism and thinking about technology in the context of its place in society, beyond just its technical properties. The Hawaii by Air online exhibit misses an opportunity to talk about the wider impact of technology beyond just its technical successes or failures. Failure is an integral part of displaying the history of science and technology and by omitting it, failing to give a full picture of that history.
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 “The Museum of Failure | Official Home of Failed Products & Services,” Failure Museum
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 Michal McMahon, “The Romance of Technological Progress: A Critical Review of the National Air and Space Museum,” Technology and Culture 22, no. 2 (1981): 281, https://doi.org/10.2307/3104902.
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 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture : Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 6, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=6908&site=ehost-live.
 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 6.
 McMahon, “The Romance of Technological Progress,” 288.
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