The Durban Holocaust Centre Educators and the Origins of their Historical and Pedagogical Knowledge

March 2018

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 84:1, 32-55


Education at Holocaust museums worldwide often falls to volunteer museum educators. The Durban Holocaust Centre in South Africa is no different. We set out to understand who the educators at the Durban Holocaust Centre were, where their historical and pedagogical knowledge came from, and to examine the connection between the two. The study revealed the diverse nature of the museum educators’ biographies as well as their motivations for guiding. Their knowledge acquisition was generally a blend of formal objectivist and informal constructivist methods. It emerged that the self-learning model was successful as the educators were highly professional and sufficiently motivated.

The Durban Holocaust Centre museum educators who participated in this study illustrated the two models of knowledge acquisition at the Durban Holocaust Centre. These modes of learning evolved over time. The first type of learning took place over a set period of time, in a group setting, led by external experienced educators from the Cape Town Holocaust Centre. This formal objectivist training entailed attendance and concentration by the volunteers, but no assessment and little hands-on training. In this respect, it was a passive form of learning. The second, adopted a few years after its inception, was in-house constructivist incidental learning devised by the Durban Holocaust Centre that was described by one of the museum educators as “self-training.” In this case, gaining historical and pedagogical Holocaust knowledge was active and self-motivated by the individual, who studied alone from the manuals and other materials. Shadowing, experiential learning, and reading were the primary tools used by the museum educators in their quest to learn how to guide and in maintaining their expertise. They also improved and empowered themselves by watching films and attending the occasional Holocaust education-related workshops and seminars held at the Durban Holocaust Centre. This self-directed learning was generally not within the field of history education but tended to be more about the historical events of the Holocaust, so that they could feel confident that they had all the “facts” at their fingertips. And so, like Grenier’s museum educators, who were academically trained but had little knowledge of teaching strategies, the Durban Holocaust Centre educators were generally knowledgeable about the events of the Holocaust, but, except for those who came from an education background, had limited knowledge of its pedagogical aspects (Grenier,2009, pp. 147–150).

The biographies of the educators who volunteered and worked at the Durban Holocaust Centre and their acquisition of knowledge were inextricably bound. Their passion and commitment, their availability, and their past experiences were reflections of a particular group of people. This in turn, meant that they were not only willing and able to learn through their own efforts but also to offer their guiding services in the mornings, when school groups visited. Regardless of their motivation, the guiding by the museum educators was informed by their personal knowledge of history and the Holocaust as well as their life experiences and personal stories.

Updated: Mar. 13, 2018