At Dublin’s Science Gallery, researcher Tessa Delehanty shows me the “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force”. Invented in 1965 by well-meaning New Yorkers George and Charlotte Blonsky, it’s designed to rotate a pregnant woman, safely strapped into stirrups, at a speed dictated by a large dial at the end of the machine (“It goes up to 7Gs,” says Delehanty) ultimately leading to a newborn baby being propelled from the womb into a net. “When the baby lands in the net a bell rings,” says Delehanty. “In case no one was paying attention.”
This “apparatus” is just one of 25 objects exhibited at the Fail Better exhibition, a celebration of noble, instructive and just plain silly failures.
Each exhibit is nominated with explanatory notes by contributors who are, without exception, very successful people. They include economist Tim Harford, explorer Ranulph Fiennes, writer Anne Enright and inventor James Dyson. The Blonskys’ child-birthing apparatus was nominated by Marc Abrahams, magazine editor and founder of the Ig Noble Prize. “Though meticulously and lovingly engineered to protect both mother and child, the device never made it to general use,” reads the programme note.
Delehanty is giving me a tour in advance of the exhibition's launch and the exhibits are still being installed. At the foot of the stairs, artist Rosie O'Reilly is examining the impressive threads that run from the floor to the ceiling and make up a sculpture celebrating the accidental invention of the colour mauve by the chemist William Perkin in 1865, a "failure" that was suggested by the educationalist, Ken Robinson. In an upstairs room, exhibitions manager Ian Brunswick is removing "Superman's wheelchair" from a packing crate. Christopher Reeve's chair was suggested for the exhibition by Mark Pollock, who was himself paralysed after an accident. He sees Reeve's quest to find a cure for his paralysis as an inspirational failure and is giving a talk on the subject on Wednesday at 6pm.
The idea for the exhibition itself came from Science Gallery director Michael John Gorman, but he roped in Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, inventor of a self-setting repair-oriented rubber called Sugru, as a co-curator.
“I did think ‘Why did I come to mind when he was thinking of failure?’” says Ní Dhulchaointigh. “But the whole reason Sugru exists is because it accepts that there are everyday failures, that nothing is perfect.”
For Ní Dhulchaointigh, while “failure” stories have become a cliche in the world of business they are less common in other fields. Even in science, she says, a realm where disasters were traditionally embraced as learning opportunities, the journals have more recently been biased towards documenting success. “It means that people are losing out on learning from each other’s mistakes.”
Fiennes’s mistake, when he failed to climb Everest in 2005, was partly down to his choice of boots. These sit in the unpacking room waiting to go into a display case. “He didn’t clean them before shipping them,” says Brunswick. “They still have the dirt on them. It’s his failed Everest dirt.”
“Is it really Everest dirt?” I ask. “Well, we haven’t tested it,” says Delehanty.
There's also Flann O'Brien's fedora, being used to accompany Anne Enright's selection, O'Brien's repeatedly rejected, now classic novel The Third Policeman; Sonia O'Sullivan's pass card for the 1996 Olympics, where she failed to finish (O'Sullivan will be talking about this at the gallery on Thursday week); and drafts of Samuel Beckett's Worstward Ho, the novella from which the lines "Try again. Fail again. Fail better" are culled.
Already in their display case, it’s rather comforting to see these pages feature numerous crossed-out lines and scribbles.
Visitors will also have the opportunity to publicise their own experiences of failure in brightly coloured marker on cards. There are already a few examples up on the wall.
One reads: "I ran with my eyes closed, thinking I'd run faster, smashed into a lamppost and am missing half a front tooth." Another: "I've been to Coppers [the Dublin night club] seven times in one week."
"They're not always silver-lining stories," says Delehanty, but even abject failures represent something redemptive. . . In Ireland failure is really taboo." Indeed, Delehanty herself worries about the show's success. "I'm still really nervous about failure," she says. "The 'It's okay to fail' mentality definitely hasn't seeped in."
"But wouldn't it be strangely fitting if the Fail Better exhibition failed," I ask .
“Oh no!” says Brunswick.
Delehanty laughs. "That joke ran out some time ago."
Fail Better is at the Science Gallery until the end of April