Meet Dr. Samuel West, Curator of The Museum of Failures (Innovation) in Sweden

He's the man behind the failures.  
Photo by Nitin Chaudhary.

43 years old Dr. Samuel West is a happy man. There is a good reason for it. His whimsy concept to document and display the remnants of corporate failures, known as the Museum of Failures in Helsingborg, Sweden, has earned the attention of world media. I sat with him to understand the inspiration behind this one-of-a-kind museum.

 

How did you come up with this idea?

All you have to do is to read business literature to get sick of the success stories of entrepreneurs.  It is the same narrative every time and I was fed up. Literature also tells us that about 80-90% of innovations fail, but we never hear about those. It is from failures that we learn.

Two years ago I started collecting some of the failed launches but I didn’t know what to do with them.  Then I happened to visit the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. I loved how they’d taken the abstract concept of broken relationships and had physical objects as representations. That was my Eureka moment and I decided to start a museum. This was one year back.

 

Were you surprised by all the interest this museum has gathered? It has become a tourist attraction.

It is something that I’m trying to understand as well. I suppose something about failures resonates with people. We are tired of the success stories and PR-polished brand images presented to us.

I heard that the other day we had a group of young boys visiting the museum. They were so excited! They were shouting “Oh look at this, how it failed! Oh look at that!” Instances like these give me goosebumps. Think about how excited these boys were to see, understand and enjoy these failures that they had never seen before.

Yes, it has become a tourist attraction! According to some statics we looked at, almost 70% of our visitors are international tourists. There is not much here in Helsingborg and they take the time to come to the museum. I feel honoured. What is also interesting is that the museum has been written about in almost all sections of the media including the travel, business, and culture. And I had nothing to do with these promotions.

 

Were all companies equally forthcoming about being associated with their failed products?

It’s rare to find companies that accept failure readily and even rarer are instances when they say that they learnt from the failure..  Being an organisational psychologist, I understand that often you do not want to publically accept your failures. But some companies do not acknowledge the failure even within the organistation. I wonder how they will learn.

 

What is your favourite object from the collection here?

I hate that question (laughs)! Some of the products here are sensational like the Trump game.  You may not like my answer but I like the ones that have a really good story behind them.  For example, Blockbuster does not have a spectacular product on display but the story behind the failure is interesting. (Blockbuster was a DVD rental company that went out of business with the appearance of Netflix and other similar services). I also like the Swedish plastic bicycle company Itera, and the story behind the potato chips made with the fat-substitute olestra—you won’t get fat but you will be sitting on a toilet all day. There were high expectations that Olestra would change the industry.

 

So, how do you define failure?

I like the academic definition—deviation from expected or desired outcomes. Segway fits this very well as the expectations were enormous and the results weren’t. Makes me laugh sometimes and it is easy to laugh in retrospective but we don’t know what will end up here in future. I think Apple Watch might be here soon.

 

On that note, which existing products do you think might end up here in future?

It is interesting to speculate which ideas that look enticing today, might end up in the museum in future.  I think we will see an opposition to social media platforms like Google and Facebook. People like free things but after a while they will have issues with privacy. At some point, people are will say it is not okay that these platforms know where you are, what you eat; that they know everything about you. In future, products that don’t address privacy issues will see negative public reaction.

 

Read more about the museum here.

  • Nitin Chaudhary is an adrenaline rush-seeking travel writer who lives in Malmo, Sweden. He hopes to travel the world in a boat.

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