Dec. 28, 2011
Break This Exhibit

Knowledge and subversion are inextricably intertwined. Vehicles get safer by subjecting them to crash tests, architecture becomes more resilient by modeling natural disasters, and police are best at solving crimes when they can think like criminals. From simulating the fiery conditions of entering Earth’s atmosphere to studying the disintegration of pharmaceuticals in the digestive system, we are continually leveling an assault on our own products and structures in an effort to understand how the world works and how to best survive in it.

Testing construction methods at the IBHS research center

And while many of these examples take place in more or less controlled environments, far more has been discovered through mistakes. Products like Teflon, cornflakes, post-it notes, artificial sweetener, fireworks, the microwave, penicillin and Viagra are just a few things stumbled upon by accident. 

Penicillin, one of the best known happy accidents (image: Wellcome Library)

“If you shut the door to all errors, truth will be shut out.” - Rabindranath Tagore.


Considering the role that both accident and demolition play in the arts and sciences, it is surprising there are no museums devoted to their study and appreciation. There are, of course, isolated examples of exhibits that let us erode soil, blow things up, melt ice, or watch blocks fall, but I know of no museum that is completely devoted to this subject. It is important to acknowledge the difference between events that are intentional (demolition, abuse, exploitation) and those that are unintentional (failures, mistakes, accidents). The museum I am describing would support investigations into both. A museum of breakage and error would offer ways for visitors to engage in deliberate acts of pushing constructs past their limits. It would explore reverse engineering in its broadest sense and provide plenty of room for accidental discoveries.

What I am suggesting should not be confused with the exhibition, Unknown Quantity, conceived by theorist Paul Virilio, and based on his view of television as a “museum of accidents”. Unknown Quantity focused on historic disasters like 9/11 and Chernobyl, presented as aesthetic expressions, art exhibits, memorials to things gone awry. Like television, the exhibition was a passive spectacle. Instead, one imagines an interactive arts and science museum dedicated to how alteration, misuse and failure can be fertile ground for advancement and discovery.

A subtle thought that is in error may yet give rise to fruitful inquiry that can establish truths of great value.” -Isaac Asimov


Point Judith Corrision Test Site (Source:

Exhibit designers and builders spend a lot of time devising ways for exhibition components to withstand use by millions of visitors. In embracing “breakage” designers and builders will perhaps be even more challenged to make such experiences available for large numbers of participants without lengthy “reset” periods or excessive waste.

One way to accomplish this is to think differently about breakage and where it starts. Stacking blocks until they topple or building a sandcastle in order to watch the waves wash it away have built-in reset modes. In both cases the reset occurs in the act of building what will fall apart. It is also important to note that when these structures break down, they disassemble into their original component parts, ready for reassembly. There are certainly many other strategies for interactives that deal with physical alteration of materials that still offer a level starting point. Computer simulations are one example. Still other strategies may not necessitate a “reset”, instead involving a collection of efforts where something is continually evolving through alteration. (See link below to offer additional strategies)

There are also ethical decisions to make in designing experiences around breakage and alteration. Destroying the thing you constructed is ethically less problematic than destroying something someone else built. Prior to all else, a museum of breakage and error would need to be clear about its stance on the ethical implications of its interactive opportunities.

The burgeoning business of cyber security is continually producing models and role-playing games that test and prepare participants to respond to cyber attacks. But one of the more valuable strategies in fighting cyber crime (or any type of crime for that matter) is the ability to imagine the crime before it happens.

In software and systems engineering the term “use case is a description of actions between a user and a software system, leading the user to something “useful”. Mis-use Case is a tool created in the 1990’s by Guttorm Sindre and Andreas L. Opdahl, that models malicious scenarios in order to help develop preventative safeguards and establish efficient security measures.

Mis-use Case Diagram

Anticipating software problems has been one of the Mis-use Case’s most common applications. Not only does it offer templates to apply to a variety of standard scenarios, pointing out general weaknesses, it also allows users to devise their own threats. Today, there are plenty of tools that basically do the same thing. Metasploit, Core Security Systems, Core Impact, or Immunity’s Canvas support penetration testing and intrusion detection development for computer security. System security agents play “criminal” and attempt to “break” the system. This is far more beneficial to protecting the system than simply passing through a templatized set of scenarios. It is certain that, as you read this, a database of every virulent act imaginable is being updated by someone working for Homeland Security, even if the act has not yet occurred. Our well-being is in the hands of those adept at thinking about wreaking havoc.

“It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something.” - Ornette Colman


Breakage and error serve many purposes. Their value is as unique as the problems they solve. Where a systems security developer invents problems with Mis-use Case in order to expose potential weaknesses in a system, artists explore and exploit the unique forms they find in destruction and failure. Art is well known for adopting things that might otherwise be considered mistakes, outcasts or derelicts as a way toward breaking new ground for expression. This attitude is similar to that of hackers. One of the problems with the term “hacking” (often confused with “cracking”) is that it has come to imply cyber vandalism. But hacking, in its pure sense, relates to the functional alteration of an object, device or system. To subvert a system’s prescribed application for an alternative, equally legitimate, purpose. Anything can be hacked; musical instruments, furniture, electronics, mechanical devices, and even living organisms.

MIT’s FutureLabCamp [ ] is a weekend “hackathon”. devoted to the future of biological prototyping, pulling as much organic material apart as is put together. Then there are companies like iRobot, makers of the Roomba vacuum, offering kits for hacking their products. And there are a number of websites devoted to hacked IKEA products.

This emerging mindset has given rise to "hackerspaces". Hackerspaces are typically non-profit organizations that foster the exploration of intersections between art and technology, science and culture. Noisebridge in SanFrancisco [], Pumping Station:One in Chicago [], New York’s NYC Resistor [], Washington DC’s HacDC [] and the AHA in Ann Arbor Michigan [] are just a few of many established hackerspaces here in the US. These engineering clubs are part of a global trend and represent a perspective that our world of manufactured products and consumer grade flotsam and jetsam is the new raw material from which the future will emerge.

While their goals are very different, this down and dirty style of often ad-hoc experimentation has been widely popularized by Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of MythBusters. Demolition as a means of scientific inquiry is what attracts viewers to their show, where they not only test the legitimacy of many pop assumptions, they also reveal why things melt, collapse, tear, crash, dissolve, burn, explode, or penetrate. You can see the giddy excitement in their faces when they blow things up, or make something crash, or make a giant mess. Let’s be honest, that’s half the fun. Much has been theorized as to why humans appear to be hardwired with this fascination for calamity. Perhaps it is the utterly antithetical nature of disaster that draws our attention, or the unfathomable conditions of our own destruction. Maybe it is about exercising survival instincts, coping methods or an involuntary release of empathy. But whatever the reasons, our fascination with discordance is integral to practically everything we know and do.

The next time you look at a skyline, or the interior of your car, or even the room you are in now, remember that everything you see has been developed through varying degrees of breakage and error (processes that, in fact, never truly cease). Since most museum collections focus primarily on products and their makers, the turbulent nature through which things get made is typically treated as a cursory point. But if this were to become the focal point, a museum of breakage and error might be perfectly suited to lay the mental and emotional groundwork for tomorrow's inventors and innovators.



MWB, 2011

(What exhibit experience would you imagine in a Museum of Breakage and Error? How might such an experience be managed? Please share your ideas and examples below.)


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