Developing the Skills for Decolonizing Work

Dialogue … is a way of exploring the roots of the many crises that face humanity today…. In our modern culture men and women are able to interact with one another in many ways: they can sing, dance, or play together with little difficulty but their ability to talk together about subjects that matter deeply to them seems invariably to lead to dispute, division, and often to violence.[i]

— David Bohm, Donald Factor, and Peter Garett, Dialogue: A Proposal (1991)


This blog post is excerpted from this recently published book; the citation information is found at the end of the post. The entire book is downloadable for free.

Since 2013, the Abbe staff have been working closely with Sarah Pharaon from International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (the Abbe is a member) to develop our skills in facilitated dialogue. We anticipated that our decolonizing commitment would require us to be able to have difficult conversations with each other, our board, and our museum audiences. In particular, our visitors would regularly throw us for a loop with questions such as “Are your Indians poor?” and “Can I touch an Indian?” While the visitors may not have intended to be hurtful when asking these questions, their impact is harmful to Native and non-Native staff members working the frontline audience interface. We wondered, how best could we transition questions such as these into new learning experiences that would broaden the visitors’ understanding and minimize the potential for harm in the future?

We also observed that very often if a visitor was not alone, his or her companion would recognize that a question or action was rude or offensive or should be phrased differently, and would begin to mediate or correct the speaker. A dialogue was trying to happen on its own, and we were ill-prepared as a staff to engage.

Facilitated dialogue allows personal truths to come forward, be examined and valued, and be evaluated for harmful impact. The Coalition describes the opportunity dialogue offers as:

  • Dialogue gives equal value to the insights drawn from personal experience and the knowledge gained from intellectual study or external sources.
  • Dialogue requires people to surface and examine the assumptions that inform their beliefs and actions. Dialogue invites a person to learn about him or herself while learning from others.
  • The process of dialogue requires participants to establish, protect, and maintain a culture of mutual trust.
  • The process of dialogue assumes that it is possible for two markedly different perspectives to coexist at the same time and therefore, rejects binary, either/or thinking.[ii]

Fortunately for the staff, our board of trustees is committed to developing decolonizing practices and has evolved into a “learning board,” hungry for readings and guest speakers to be part of our regular meetings.[iii] The board could easily have been a limiting force as we dove into this training and its applications, but it was truly the opposite.

The team skill set is a work in progress, affected by staff transitions and limited resources. We have piloted dialogue-based programs and are gradually embedding these skills into our work. Beginning in 2017, we will create and revise all educational programming to include dialogic elements, from opportunistic dialogues to intensive, guided dialogues. Facilitated dialogue places museum-goers at a shared table where they can see themselves as part of the story, either through personal connections or universal themes. This approach to relevance not only engenders support for history, anthropology, and museology; more importantly, it generates empathy in visitors when it connects the story to their worldview. When relevance is evident, oppressive and colonizing frameworks can be dissolved.

An intrinsic step in adopting facilitated dialogue in museum environments is to identify non-negotiables. These specify what does not constitute acceptable conversation in your museum because it may be wholly untrue, even if it is commonly espoused by visitors, or because the topic is incredibly sensitive and harmful to some people and can act as a trigger. There is a wide host of reasons why selecting non-negotiables is important for moving forward with difficult conversations. The Coalition training also cautions that recognizing a non-negotiable is to be done in a way that doesn’t shut down dialogue—a delicate balance indeed and a process that was incredibly challenging for the Abbe staff. [iv] Ultimately, we adopted three operational truths or non-negotiables:

  • De-humanizing thousands of generations of ancestors and Indigenous people is unacceptable and perpetuates intergenerational trauma.
  • Colonization is an ongoing, harmful process.
  • Wabanaki nations are sovereign nations. That sovereignty is inherent and cannot be taken or given away.

Once we put these words on a flipchart and confirmed that this is the truth of our work and that it is non-negotiable, we all became surprisingly emotional. With these three truths in hand, we can navigate academia, practice, and visitor experiences while reducing harm to Indigenous people.

Of course, this isn’t the only work we needed to do to be adept at decolonizing. At the same time as our study of facilitated dialogue, we submitted ourselves to racial bias training led by internationally-known social justice activist Steve Wessler. Through his careful and experienced framework, we did self-work, looking at our biases and learning how to combat them and to interact in difficult situations when micro-aggressions, misrepresentations, stereotypes, and more are expressed in direct communication and overheard in conversation in our museum space and personal life. Each year we offer this training to our seasonal staff as well as any new employees who have joined the professional staff.

Our training at the Abbe continues.[v] Most recently, trustee Jamie Bissonette Lewey, Abenaki, an accomplished healing and transformative justice facilitator, led board and staff in a facilitated discussion she created on power sharing and museums. In two parts, the exercise first asked the question, “Where do museums have power in America?” The answers were wide-ranging and startling when viewed as a whole: museums have control of information and objects; they selectively disseminate information; they hold power over stories and interpretation; they determine what is and isn’t “appropriate”; and they hold power over taste and aesthetics.

We followed this discussion by asking a second question, “What does power sharing look like?” The ideas we generated were motivational and achievable: a Native person would serve on all Museum committees; Wabanaki cultural protocols are on par with museum best practices; academic and Native knowledge and scholarship are no longer adversarial; and our archaeology field school would be led by an Indigenous archaeologist. This discussion and others continue and are designed to reveal the work we have before us and to prioritize our next steps in service to Native people and their history, culture, and art.


We thank the Massachusetts Historical Society for making possible the initial publication of this piece, which you can access here:

To cite this work, please use the full bibliographic reference: Catlin-Legutko, Cinnamon, “History that Promotes Understanding in a Diverse Society,” in The Future of History: Historians, Historical Organizations, and the Prospects for the Field, ed. Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2017).

[i] David Bohm, Donald Factor, and Peter Garett, Dialogue: A Proposal, 1991,

[ii] International Coalition for the Sites of Conscience, Facilitated Dialogue Training Materials, 2013 and 2016.

[iii] How they became a learning board is a topic for another article. This was not an overnight transition and was not without serious bumps in the road.

[iv] International Coalition for the Sites of Conscience, 2013 and 2016.

[v] The Abbe board and staff include regular Native representation and participation, but the percentage fluctuates from year to year. The board recently developed a protocol with the goal to reach Native/non-Native parity on the board by 2021.


Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko is the President and CEO of the Abbe Museum. Working in museums for more than twenty years, she believes they have the power to change lives, inspire movements, and challenge authority. A museum director since 2001, Cinnamon is a frequent presenter at national museum meetings and is often asked to comment on national museum issues. She has been the driving force behind the Abbe Museum’s decolonization initiative, working with the Native communities in Maine to develop policies and protocols to ensure collaboration and cooperation with Wabanaki people. In 2016 Cinnamon gave her first TEDx talk, We Must Decolonize Our Museums. She’s the author of Museum Administration 2.0 (2016), The Art of Healing: The Wishard Art Collection (2004), and co-editor of the Small Museum Toolkit (2012).

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