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Practical communities for cultural engagement: 7 things not to do

By 2 February 2021No Comments

A bit of advice on building a practical community for cultural engagement, from those who have already done it.


Cultural engagement is a real contemporary challenge. There is no question about the fact that the word ‘challenge’ is overused today, but in this case it really applies. Indeed, the communities that develop around cultural institutions are demanding them to “hand over part of their power”, thereby making this a pressing issue for the institutions themselves.

It is also a challenge inasmuch as it is an experiment, an experience developed by looking at international best practice, but above all by putting oneself to the test and learning from mistakes. Because every institution, territory and public is different and requires new and different methods of engagement.

Two years on from the launch of the Open Vicoli project, we can say that we’ve made it! Two years to activate a network of cultural organisations and transform it into a practical community, able to develop cultural engagement projects in the streets of Genoa. Now that the project is coming to an end, we can look back and share what we’ve learned. Ready? Let’s get started!

7 things not to do

1. Do everything on your own

Before making contact with the public, make sure you find some partners! With Open Vicoli we discovered that it’s often sufficient to simply go around the corner to find someone to involve as an active part of the project.

2. Stick to your friends

You’re a museum and you involve the other museums in your area: that’s great, but you can do better! Building a practical community is a great opportunity to branch out. Go looking for organisations you don’t know, which do something completely different from you. For example, what do you think about working with an association that makes bags with inmates and former inmates together with a museum institution?

3. Limit yourself to your existing skills

Forget what you (already) know how to do. Working with other organisations to engage the public will require you to start from scratch, learning new things, listening and asking for help from other professionals and organisations. Training comes first, both for the organisation itself and its staff.

4. Settle for one project

So you have your network of organisations and, if you’ve done well, it’s a hybrid network. Put it to work at full throttle! Form some teams (diverse if possible) and challenge each team to come up with and develop its own project. Here at Open Vicoli we called them Tables and we formed four, with a total of twenty-five organisations involved and four projects developed. We presented them all on 11 December, live on Facebook.

5. Work in sealed compartments

If you want the machine to function, don’t leave anyone on their own. Make sure that everyone is able to discuss progress from time to time. We know it can be hard work, but internal communication is essential! In the case of Open Vicoli, BAM! played the key role of Community Manager: not just enabling, but coordinating and facilitating the creation of the community, always in partnership with the Cooperativa Sociale Il Laboratorio, the project leader and contact point for the network right in the heart of Genoa.

6. Focus everything on the finale

Work in intermediate steps, assess the process, leave the walls of your museum from time to time and go out to meet the city. Cultural events, large or small, are the best way to keep in contact with the local area (and the actual situation). This is the time to experiment: workshops, games, art exhibitions, walks… what else can you come up with?

7. Stop at the first results

You’ve worked hard to set up your network and develop public engagement projects. Don’t stop! After two years of work, supported by the Open Community tender run by the Compagnia di San Paolo, the biggest challenge faced by Open Vicoli is to keep the practical community active. We also discussed this on 10 and 11 December, over two days dedicated to Culture and Engagement with the network partners and other important players on Genoa’s cultural scene.


Both before and after Open Vicoli, we have had other opportunities to work on cultural engagement, co-design and facilitation, but this project represented a truly wonderful opportunity for growth. Such as? Such as:

  • The opportunity to experiment, developing new shared design tools, and an opportunity for learning.
  • The construction of shared semantics, even among very different players and operating contests. And the difficulty involved in trying to do this.
  • Confirmation of the multiplicative value of shared reasoning and working.
  • The ongoing discovery of a never-ending maze of paths and people.
  • The awareness of being unable to predict the results of the actions involved in a projects with clearly defined procedures but undefined content, the rules of the game but not the results that would emerge.

Not enough?