Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

What We’re Reading: Cultural Organizations: It Is Time to Get Real About Failures

Has anyone ever told you “it’s okay to fail” or “failures are the pathway to success”? My guess is yes. It’s pretty common rhetoric these days to hear the advice to admit failure. Which is why, when I went to read this article, I was skeptical about reading much that was new. I was wrong. As she does often, Colleen approaches her topic with fresh eyes and new arguments. In Cultural Organizations: It Is Time to Get Real About Failures, Colleen spends more time questioning how, to whom, and when, museums admit failure than she spends discussing the benefits of admitting failures in general.  Riddled with hard data to back up her thoughts, the article confronts readers with challenging questions to ask themselves and their institutions when talking about failure:

  • Are all ‘successes’ presented at conferences really successes or are some “mediocre outcomes” masked as successes? Who might we be trying to impress by making something look more successful than it really was?
  • What failures do we admit and which do we still hide from view?
  • Whose responsibility is it to call out failures? Where is the line between calling out and shaming fellow institutions?
  • Are failures that are shared actually helping others in the field? What can we do better to prevent colleagues from making the same mistakes?
  • How can we turn the focus of admitting failures from us to those it would help?

1 Comment

  1. Barbara Silberman

    July 2, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    I can only hope that this book is widely read and discussed. In the last 30 plus years of working in the field, I can’t count the times that people reinvent a wheel that is broken. Too often, projects are undertaken without discussion of clear, measurable outcomes, or without closing the loop on a project by evaluating whether or not those outcomes were met.

    So what feeds this charade? Who doesn’t want to list all the awards and recognition their organization has received when applying for grants? Who wants to admit failure in a culture that currently only discusses ” the best, the biggest, the most awesome?” How can we approach failure as an opportunity to learn from each other and a means to avoid endless pain and financial difficulties? One approach would be to think of any attempts to carry out the mission that don’t work, as an experiment rather than a failure, which usually implies the end of something rather than a learning experience or as one step on the way to something remarkable. Scientists fail all the time; they just call those attempts “experiments.”

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