March 2024

Interview with Wolfgang Schmutz, Guest Editor of JME 49.1: Transforming Teaching and Learning About the Holocaust

In his introduction to JME 49.1: Transforming Teaching and Learning About the Holocaust, guest editor Wolfgang Schmutz gives a thoughtful and heartfelt reaction to how he believes readers might consider the articles in this issue situated within the ongoing violence in Palestine and Israel (and in many parts of the world) today. I encourage readers to spend time with Wolfgang’s introduction, the articles within the issue, and, in particular, I hope that readers think about two challenges he asked us to consider:

“We must focus on the specificity of what informed the Holocaust rather than falling for simplistic generalizations that tailor antisemitism to fit other forms of othering. This does not do justice to the Holocaust, nor other genocides, nor antisemitism, nor racism.”

“We need to explore how we can establish a dialogue between Holocaust and postcolonial studies in which there is a genuine openness to each other’s truth claims.”

For this blog post, we give space for Wolfgang’s thought-provoking introduction and take a broader perspective on how readers of the JME, especially museum educators, might engage with scholarly work (like that within this issue) to take up ideas from these articles within their practice. In this spirit, I interviewed Wolfgang for his sense of what it means to think about and apply broader themes to the day-to-day practices of running museum programs and designing museum learning experiences.

Interview with Wolfgang Schmutz:

Photo of Wolfgang Schmutz a white male with a beard and glasses. He is wearing a white collared shirt.
Wolfgang Schumtz

Wade: To start, I want to ask you to speak on a couple of ideas from your introduction. You asked for readers to consider “honestly allowing oneself to be puzzled,” the “complexity [issues], historically and morally,” and “many short-circuits between political activism and the scholarly world.” For me, each of these sentiments speaks to giving space and grace to think critically and rethink our work as museum educators.

What advice might you give museum educators who need support in making this possible within their work? How would you recommend that museum educators balance this with their day-to-day responsibilities?

Wolfgang: I’m a strong believer in modeling, so I’m an advocate of aligning practice and purpose, of connecting the how to the what. When we, as educators, show that we are on top of things, we raise the bar for participants, and do not invite productive failure. Still, when we allow ourselves to share our insecurities, what we wonder about, and what we have not fully understood, we set the stage very differently. Uncertainty is very productive and invites critical thinking. This is not to be confused with having no position or agreeing with everything said. Still, I would argue that an intrinsic curiosity about other people’s thoughts, combined with the creation of a framework informed by that very curiosity, is what allows shared meaning-making to unfold its power. This is consistent with the discipline of history: because it is a narrative about something that happened in the past, we need to negotiate how we understand the event itself and how we perceive the narrative about it. 

But your question is also about integrating this into daily work. When there are limitations, it is always a question of priorities. If doing education this way is a priority, then thinking about it must become a daily or weekly routine. When we do this, we demonstrate that we take our work seriously, and only then will our work be recognized as essential, and only then can we identify what we need for continued fruitful development. That is a lot of work, but I don’t see a way around it.

Wade: For this issue of the JME, you worked with authors with various roles in museum education, from researchers to program coordinators to consultants. I find that in seeing the list of authors for each JME, it is clear that many roles in museum education blur the lines between research and education. That is part of what makes articles in the JME so fascinating; they can speak to program design, museum strategy, and theories of teaching and learning – all at the same time.

What might you suggest for the JME audience to continue to build useful connections between research and practice? What have you seen work well from your time guest-editing this issue in terms of encouraging authors to think and write about (and across) theory and practical elements simultaneously?

Wolfgang: I agree that the lines can be blurred, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has the same status or that this is understood as a good starting point for collaboration. I see a lot of hierarchical issues in the field that are an obstacle to such collaboration. From my perspective as an educator, I would argue that educational practice should be a starting point for research. We often tend to think that there is (academic) research on one side and practitioners doing what is doable on the other. This is a huge limitation for both sides. I have seen academics lacking data from practitioners to support their theories and practitioners lacking experience in how best to apply academic findings. There is a danger that this could lead to a guessing game at both ends, if I may put it bluntly. At least in my immediate environment, collaborative work on these issues is extremely rare. Gathering around something new to be developed probably creates the most promising environment, as it allows for new strategies, directions, methods, etc. Still, as far as I can tell, interdisciplinary co-creation is far from being the default mode in developing education. 

When it comes to my own experience of contributing to this journal, and this may be true for many colleagues, it is still quite a lift for practitioners to write about their work in the light of theory and academic knowledge, as this connection is not taken for granted. And, at least in my corner of the world, there is no tradition of educators taking on this task themselves, as this seems to be more for curators and less for educators. I think it is worth challenging ourselves to get out of the routine of just telling what has been done, to be less preoccupied with representation and more focused on open questions, problems, and possibilities. But for many, including myself, this may not be the first step we need to take; it may be to get used to narrating and thereby evaluating what’s behind the things we do, how we arrived at these procedures, and how we change them over time and why.

Wade: As a guest editor, you proposed this issue of the JME, likely because you were passionate about bringing together like-minded people who could share in your passion and speak to various ideas around Holocaust Education in museums. As someone who successfully stewarded a guest-edited issue towards publication, you might serve as an example to other JME readers and members who might want to gather colleagues who share their interests in a similar way.

What was it like to be a guest editor? What would you say to encourage others to propose a guest-edited issue or to serve as a guest editor? What can a potential guest editor expect?

Wolfgang: Let me begin my answer with a very selfish aspect, my personal interest in understanding what drives other colleagues’ program development and practice, to see how they respond to needs and pressures, and to learn about their ideas and rationales. You might rightly say that you don’t need to guest edit a journal issue to do this, but knowing how rare opportunities for exchange are in our field, you should take advantage of every one. Most of the contributors to this volume are people I have worked with in the past but on a minimal basis. So, I was curious to learn more about their ways of thinking and practicing. Seeing others wrestle with difficult questions, especially when I share them and lack the answers myself, is always a good starting point for bringing together different perspectives. In this case, it happened unintentionally, but not necessarily by chance, that several colleagues drew on how to teach and learn about the Holocaust in the context of human rights education and the discussion of racism. This way, a shared reality creates a common thread in an edited volume. As a guest editor, however, you are privileged to read the different contributions together to see how they fit and what emerges as a larger picture. Still, this privilege is now shared with all the readers of the volume.

Wolfgang Schmutz is a consultant and curator for Holocaust education, university lecturer and memorial-site educator.