In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Beyond experience:the mediation of traumatic memories in South African history museums
  • Sofie MMA Geschier (bio)


South Africa is ten years into its democracy and history is actively rewritten and negotiated while many of the primary witnesses are still alive. Stakeholders within the Department of Education, the heritage industry, the academic world and teachers increasingly perceive museums as crucial educational sites that document and symbolise the transition and facilitate the building of 'the future' (see various contributions in Jeppie 2004).2 Outcomes Based Education, discussed and developed over the last ten years (see Chisholm 2004), prescribes both the Holocaust and apartheid as topics in the Revised National Curriculum Statements for grades R-9 (Department of Education 2002:92-93). The educators, who might be primary or secondary witnesses to these events, are assumed to know how to achieve the prescribed outcomes and how to facilitate the learning process. References to the role and influence of personal positions and experiences of mediators, such as teachers and museum facilitators, on the learning process, are however rare (Harley et al 2000; Goodson 1996; Swina 1994).

This is problematic for historical and pedagogical reasons: writers such as Bar-On (1999) and Simon et al (2000) have pointed out that people do not merely change their identities and values when political or social changes occur. While one needs to be careful in drawing comparisons,3 it is legitimate to argue that totalitarian regimes such as Nazism in Germany and apartheid in South Africa impact on people both in the past and present in two intertwined ways: on the one hand they erased and reshaped individual and collective memories of 'other' pasts and presents, particularly those memories that were not compatible with their ideologies (Winter and [End Page 45] Sivan 1999:7). On the other hand, in the case of the Holocaust and apartheid's forced removals, they took people away from their physical and metaphorical place in society. For the survivors, the actual loss of this physical and metaphorical place and thus of their identity is traumatic because with it they lost their trust in others and in the safety of the world (LaCapra 2001:45-46).4 The question then is: how do people 'change', reflect on 'change' and how do they mediate this to the younger generations?

In the field of education, researchers such as Ellsworth (1997) and Jagodzinski (2002) also challenge an idealistic, unproblematic interpretation of 'change'. Ellsworth points out that pedagogy is 'a much messier and more inconclusive affair than the vast majority of our educational theories and practices make it out to be' (1997:8). Educators (and human beings in general) have the desire to forget that 'the fancy of understanding' is a prestigious but seductive illusion (1997:81-82) (see also Britzman 2000). Ellsworth (1997:70) explains:

Teaching is not psychoanalysis. But consciously or unconsciously teachers deal nevertheless in repression, denial, ignore-ance, resistance, fear and desire whenever we teach. And in any classroom, the presence of the discourse of the Other can often become painfully and disturbingly evident and 'disruptive' to goals such as understanding, empathy, communicative dialogue. This is especially so in classrooms that deal explicitly with histories.

This project attempts to address this under researched area in history education in South Africa. Paying attention to the subjectivity of mediators, be they teachers or museum facilitators, is pivotal if we want to understand how 'change' — as a historical 'event' but also as changing moral values, behaviour and thought — is taught. The question that drives this paper is: how do museum facilitators define and analyse the role of primary narratives of traumatic events such as the Holocaust and apartheid forced removals in pedagogical interactions with a younger generation?5 The data entails interviews conducted in 2003 with museum facilitators of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre and the District Six Museum. Both museums were established during the first ten years of South Africa's democracy, are extensively visited by school groups, and have developed lesson material and specific programs for schools. I interviewed respectively seven and five museum facilitators (holding different positions within the museum hierarchy). Two of the Holocaust Centre interviewees are Holocaust survivors and all District...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 45-65
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.