“DIAMOND – The museums as a space for dialogue and collaborative meaning-making”

City Museum of Zoology | Rome


Funded by the European Union in the framework of the Lifelong Learning Programme “Grundtvig”, “DIAMOND – Dialoguing Museums for a New Cultural Democracy” originates from the commitment on the part of all partners involved to promote the role of museums as key actors for the removal of cultural barriers by combining social inclusion practices with the methodology of Digital Storytelling.
The DIAMOND project was born in the wake of an important experience, the “MuseoLab” project, carried out in Rome between 2009 and 2010 by one of DIAMOND partners, the City Museum of Zoology. The goal of “MuseoLab” was to take science out of the Museum’s walls to bring it closer to citizens living in the outskirts of Rome. Most project participants, therefore, were individuals who do not normally visit museums or take part in any kind of cultural activity due to their economic condition or to the cultural and physical distance from mainstream cultural institutions.
Another important precedent of the DIAMOND project is the partnership between Eccom-European Center for Cultural Organisation and Management, Melting Pro-Laboratorio per la Cultura (MeP) and the City Museum of Zoology of Rome in the development of Digital Storytelling competencies: in December 2011, MeP and ECCOM organised an ad hoc training course addressed to professionals working for the Museum of Zoology, whose goal was to provide the museum staff with opportunities to experiment with this innovative tool in order to carry out their activities.
The eagerness to reproduce and share experiences similar to those just described, and thereby to open the museums to all citizens, led project partners to develop the concept which would have resulted in DIAMOND.
As for the City Museum of Zoology of Rome in particular, useful lessons were drawn from a previous project run between 2011 and 2012, entitled “The Museum as a space for dialogue and socio-cultural inclusion”


– As a pilot project, DIAMOND involved four museum institutions (the City Museum of Zoology of Rome, the Museum of Natural History “Grigore Antipa” of Bucarest, the Museum of Natural Sciences “Ion Borcea” of Bacau, and the Museum of Natural Sciences of Valencia) and two cultural associations (ECCOM – European Center for Cultural Organisation and Management and Melting Pro–Laboratorio per la Cultura) in three European countries (Italy, Spain and Romania).
– The pilot experience developed by the City Museum of Zoology of Rome, which is the focus of this project description, resulted from the partnership between the Museum, “Civico Zero” Centre for refugees and “Daniele Manin” CTP – Centre for Adult Education and Training.


Funding bodies
The project was funded by the European Union in the framework of the Lifelong Learning Programme “Grundtvig”.


Of the DIAMOND project as a whole:
The project’s main goal was to encourage the use of Digital Storytelling in museums, as a tool for self-expression and for communication with others which helps removing cultural barriers. The development of narratives and videos allows to acquire new technological skills on the one hand, and to expand one’s own creativity on the other; it also fosters intercultural exchange in those projects where people with an immigrant background are involved.


Of the pilot project with refugees and migrants run by the City Museum of Zoology of Rome:
In line with the goal to test the Museum’s potential in involving citizens at risk of exclusion, all activities with pilot groups, both within and outside the Museum, were based on the valorisation of museum resources. As most participants were not used to museum attendance for different reasons, getting to know the Museum, its cultural meanings, its activities and social role was deemed more important than focussing on the formal contents of museum displays or other pre-defined programmes. The assumptions to be tested were that: a) the direct contact with museum objects/specimens (in this case animals) could trigger interests and promote meaning-making and the development of knowledge regardless of the degree of education, previous knowledge and cultural differences of participants; b) activities based on observation/experimentation and little-structured visits (rather than formal guided visits with pre-digested information and themes) would help highlighting the interests, creativity and personal meaning-making of the individuals involved, and understanding scientific research and the Museum’s mission and work; c) the use of informal and diverse languages could enhance the opportunities for communication and dialogue with individuals coming from different educational and cultural backgrounds; d) the Museum and its collections could represent a context to promote the encounter between cultural diversities, rather than the transmission of notions and information; e) visiting patterns based on dialogue (i.e. free of any authoritarian or patronising attitude) could encourage people lacking in self-confidence or culturally marginalised to express their own values and knowledge systems.


Target groups
• young refugees from the “Civico Zero” Centre
• adults with an immigrant background attending the “Daniele Manin” CTP – Centre for Adult Education and Training.


Duration of the project
From November 2012 to November 2014.


Project description

1. The pilot activities with young refugees – Coming out of invisibility
“Civico Zero” is a Centre supported by Save the Children and located in the working-class neighbourhood of San Lorenzo in Rome. It welcomes young political refugees, but also young Roma, ex-inmates and individuals experiencing social exclusion, who receive assistance, but are also involved in cultural and leisure activities. Unsurprisingly, the inclusion of young refugees in the city’s life and culture is particularly problematic (as is the case in other European countries). Most of these youths survived terrible stories of war, persecution and violence, and are now looking for better lives; however, upon their arrival in Italy, they do not always find what they hoped for; they often are confined inside Refugees Centres, where they become “invisible”; although some of them manage to attend special schools for adult education and training (CTPs), their situation is ephemeral, unstable, and often without future prospects. The Museum staff found out that many of the young refugees they worked with were highly interested and motivated in learning, and yet hindered by their sense of not being accepted or integrated, by their loss of identity and cultural/linguistic differences, and by the lack of points of reference.
After preliminary contacts with operators working in the Refugees Centre, meetings were organised with some youths at “Civico Zero”, and specimens taken there with the Mobile Museum. None of the youths involved (neither those who subsequently visited the Museum) had never been inside a scientific museum; most of them were not even aware of their existence, or didn’t have any mental image of any museum, as they came from countries where museum institutions are either not present or not perceived as a value to be aware and taken care of. The Museum has been visited by over one hundred youths on the occasion of several meetings organised in partnership with the “Civico Zero”; visits took place in exhibition and workshop spaces, where Museum staff guided the young visitors without following predefined routes, by stopping where the interest and curiosity of participants were stronger (this was especially the case when memories and stories from their countries of origin emerged), and by allowing them the time the “get their bearings” in an environment which was completely new from a spatial, communication and conceptual/philosophical point of view. Museum operators encouraged their inquisitiveness and observations, tales and comments, by respecting identities and cultural differences; they provided participants with scientific explanations in response to their queries (for example, all the youths involved took part in a taxidermy workshop: how and why animals are preserved was the most frequent question) or as a factor of dialogue and exchange between knowledge systems. Meetings had a follow-up at the Refugees Centre and at the Museum, which resulted in the production of several digital stories.

2. The pilot activities with “new citizens” – Culture beyond school
Immigrants “regularly” living and working in Rome (as in other European cities) are several thousands and come from different parts of the world. Generally, these new citizens are not represented in museum audiences, and (beyond special events) the Museum had clear evidence of their poor cultural participation, due not only to the lack of information or economic resources, but also to little familiarity with cultural activities. There are several special schools for adults in Rome, attended by immigrants of all ages, cultures and professions who are clearly willing to get an educational certification and develop a better knowledge of Italian culture. Classes are exclusively formed by foreign-born citizens with degrees which are not recognised in Italy (or without any degree). Difficulties in communication are palpable, as no one is fluent in the Italian language. The school is attended discontinuously due to working time constraints, problems with residence permits, or simply because students show little diligence (or cultural interest). Programmes are partially aligned with those of public schools and are often difficult, abstract or alien to the students’ cultural and linguistic preparation/background or to the daily problems they experience; some teachers select topics on the basis of their alleged usefulness. Also due to time and organisational constraints, lessons are not supported by workshop activities or practical experiences, and the opportunities to take part in cultural activities are inadequate or virtually non-existent, depending on the good will of teachers. In spite of their apparent integration, cultural inclusion and exchange between new citizens and local culture “remain at the surface” and only take place through school or daily life; free cultural participation (and/or attitude) is practically absent, and attending school is evidently not enough to encourage it as an alternative for a better quality of life. The pilot project, therefore, was aimed at testing the response of a group of individuals with an immigrant background to a cultural offer which is so new to them. It was offered to the teachers of one of these Centres for adult education and training: some of them accepted the invitation with a view to integrating the museum visit into the curriculum; others were more open to exploring the potential of this new experience, without necessarily having to fit it in the school programme.
The Museum envisaged the same format also for this pilot group (outreach activities, informal visits to the Museum, feedback of participants). Over one year, several classes were involved, and more than 200 students reached.


Lessons to be learned


Of the pilot project with young refugees:
A number of factors provide the evidence of how successful the strategies employed were.
• The relationship with the Museum staff was always friendly and characterised by openness and reciprocal appreciation, thereby transforming meetings into opportunities of mutual knowledge and socialisation; the latter is a crucial precondition to increase in participants a sense of self-esteem, confidence in being accepted and trust in the Institution. All of them showed liveliness, curiosity, an extraordinary enthusiasm and sense of wonder when looking at the animals of the Museum, when listening to the scientific interpretation provided by Museum staff, and during workshop activities. Many of them spontaneously came back to the Museum several times, overcoming difficulties, distance and time constraints, taking with them relatives and friends, and without asking for particular assistance. They wrote articles for their journal, made videos and photographic services. For all of them, the Museum was an enjoyable discovery and a meeting place with a quiet and friendly atmosphere. Because of this appreciation on the part of young refugees, it was agreed with the “Civico Zero” Centre to hold monthly visits to the Museum with the “veterans” as well as with newcomers.
• Digital Storytelling was particularly interesting because of the diverse cultural backgrounds of participants. Storycircles were successful also with the most timid and reserved, who, when offered the opportunity to be listened to, opened themselves, disclosed their feelings and life experiences to others, and wrote down or dictated their story. Nine stories were digitalised with the active (although discontinuous) participation of youths. All of them revolve around new knowledge, emotions and reminiscences triggered by the Museum, along with the memories of past life in the countries of origin.
• Requests for new opportunities to work with the Museum keep on coming from “Civico Zero” Centre. Activities with this group go on with a range of initiatives.

Of the pilot project with adult migrants attending the local CTP:
• The observation activities held in the classroom roused interests, curiosities and a desire to learn, thereby confirming the need for a practical and experimental approach, with the direct involvement of students.
• Many stories, also personal, revolving around animals were told and written before the visits to the Museum, and played a part in creating a bridge between “common-sense” and formal experiences and cultures.
• The Museum was presented more as a field of exploration and exchange between science and local/non-specialist narratives, than as a classroom. For all those involved, it was a genuine discovery to find out that animals are preserved as natural heritage (the concept of displaying objects in museums). After the first, successful visits, some students came back to the Museum in different groups to attend workshops during school hours; they produced a range of materials documenting their experience, and organised a “feedback event” at a local cultural centre. Three stories, out of the many collected by the Museum, were digitalised with the active (although discontinuous) participation of Storytellers, who reflected their cultural peculiarities also in these expressive forms. However, the Museum staff is not aware of any of these groups/students freely coming back to the Museum, and it looks like this experience remained confined to a school context. The idea of free and spontaneous cultural participation as a factor for personal and social growth is probably hard to nurture: how can the Museum contribute?

More in general, the Museum and its zoological collections were used as a conceptual and experiential framework to compare participants’ previous knowledge bases, visions, experiences, meanings, values, and to build/accept new ones, such as scientific knowledge and values. Language barriers were overcome thanks to the multi-lingual skills of the operators involved and to the cooperation of linguistic mediators (working for example with the several young participants coming from Afghanistan or different African countries).

Of the DIAMOND project as a whole:
• The Pilot project developed in the framework of DIAMOND may only have an experimental value and represent a possible working method, but it certainly provided the Museum with new insights into what could be done on a more structured and permanent level to combat social exclusion in a city such as Rome. The positive response of pilot groups actually confirms the effectiveness of the methodologies employed and encourages the Museum to widen the scope of these experiences; furthermore, it highlights the Museum’s potential (the potential of scientific museums) with respect to social sustainability, cultural inclusion and the promotion of a better quality of life.
• From the point of view of the Museum and its Social Report (a key element for evaluation), the positive impact of the Pilot project goes beyond experimentation in itself: in fact, a meaningful cultural service was offered to marginalised segments of the population, and the project definitively marked the Museum’s opening towards the surrounding community, its willingness to take on a new and more vital role in promoting social transformation and cohesion, and its interest in investigating innovative strands of practice aimed at nurturing dialogue between forgotten/marginalised cultures, expectations, languages and socio-cultural contexts.
• The experience encouraged a redefinition of the Museum’s role and of its external/internal image (the Museum as a space of participation, encounter, multi-intercultural mediation and social inclusion), without questioning its more traditional mission. Today the Museum’s awareness and interest in “non visitors” and individuals at risk of being excluded has increased, and a thorough investigation into the evolution of its relationship with the surrounding community has started.

Publications / other resources
Da Milano C. Falchetti E. (eds.), Stories for Museums, Museums for Stories. Digital storytelling and inclusive scientific museums: a European project, Vetrani editore, Nepi 2014.


Contact details
City Museum of Zoology of Rome
via Ulisse Aldrovandi, 18 – 00197 Rome
tel. +39. 06.67109270
– Elisabetta Falchetti, Head of Education and project coordinator


Project description published in: September 2014

Target Groups

Young refugees and students with a migrant background attending Centres for Adult Education and Training