Fail better? Failure and public history

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black and white arrowsI’ve been thinking about failure and public history. Failure—and mistakes more generally—aren’t concepts we like to consider. The word is intertwined with feelings of shame and humiliation, private emotions which are the antithesis of the public nature of public history. Many people’s impulse is to hide failure or “spin” it, the clichéd strategy of “making lemons out of lemonade.” I’ve been considering failure recently, because a few projects I’ve either been directly involved with or closely observed have gone in directions drastically different from the original plans.

Public history is inherently complicated and there is rarely a single reason for the collapse of a project. Further, failure, like success, is not well-defined. One’s expectations and needs influence a project as do a myriad of relationships and external factors. Consider the fictional example of an ambitious crowdsourcing project, undertaken by a university-based historian, her graduate students, and a historic preservation group, that never quite gels. For the students, who have gained hands-on experience, the project is a success. If, however, the historic preservation agency cannot sustain the project after the students leave, it may be a partial success, one that has allowed for experimentation with social media, but one that cannot be maintained without taxing the agency’s capacity. The historian, meanwhile, must convey the value of ambiguous “results” to sympathetic colleagues who are assessing her tenure case, so that they will not conclude that the project was a failure.

Ideally, public history educators should lead the charge to fail better. The emphasis on learning from mistakes and failures has taken on a new vogue among a range of professionals, including those in in business and international development. Engineers Without Borders Canada even issues an annual Failure Report with a companion website.

Of course, failure in public history is very rarely a matter of life and death, as can be the case of errors, mistakes, and failure in medicine or engineering. Ironically, this might be one reason we haven’t been forced to examine failed projects in more detail. Another compelling reason has to do with the pace of public history practiced in academic settings. In my experience, public history educators typically move from one project to the next, without allowing appropriate time for reflection and assessment. I understand why this happens: the semester ends, the grant runs out. Yet questions about the project remain: Was it worth doing? What did the public and the historians learn?

Far from simply ruminating about failure, I have made a very modest challenge to myself. I will include time and space for reflection about the relative successes and failures of the public history project that students and I will be undertaking this fall. I am also committed to writing down the results of this reflection, so that the analysis doesn’t simply dissipate. This material will help my colleagues better understand the value of failure–indeed, it will allow them to understand the successes in each failure. In my mind, this sort of reflection will be more of a post-mortem than a formal summative evaluation. I know that this won’t be easy. Honest reflection always runs up against issues of status, hierarchy, and authority. Reflection won’t in itself undo a failed project or prevent future failures. My modest hope is that such a reflection will help me “fail better.” Stay tuned.

~ Modupe Labode is an assistant professor of history and museum studies at IUPUI.

NOTE: The title of this post comes from a line from Samuel Beckett’s Worstword Ho:  “No matter try again fail again fail better.”  It also appears on this 1984 portrait of Beckett by Tom Phillips, found in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.


  1. Linda Shopes says:

    Couldn’t agree more. A realistic assessment of the limits – not quite the same as failure, I know – of the work we do is very much needed.

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