Johnstown: Where We Work at JAHA
BY KAYLA PONGRAC
Our Town Correspondent
A new exhibit titled “Johnstown: Where We Work” is now available to view in the second floor galleries of the Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center, located at 601 Broad Street in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood.
The exhibit, which shines a spotlight on Johnstown’s work history through images and artifacts, is to remain on display for an entire year.
Many of the images and artifacts were supplied by Johnstown Area Heritage Association’s (JAHA) archives, but area residents and local businesses also had a hand in procuring the materials on display.
Viewers will learn about working life in Johnstown from the 19th century to the present time. They’ll learn about not only the workers in the steel, railroad and coal industries, but also workers such as store owners, public servants and farmers. The exhibit emphasizes the array of area jobs that have come and gone, as well as the jobs that have stayed or were created in the 20th century.
The exhibit is the brainchild of Marcia Kelly, JAHA’s Graphic and Exhibit Designer. She shared her idea for the exhibit last year with Andrew Lang, who had just moved to Johnstown from New York to become JAHA’s new curator.
“After being at the museum for a few months, I was still very much getting my feet wet and learning the ropes,” Lang said. “Marcia said that based on our photograph and artifact collections, a good first exhibit would be one on workers, both to highlight their contributions to Johnstown and as a way to learn about the community and its industries.”
Lang said the exhibit did indeed introduce him to Johnstown’s rich history, and he hopes viewers will learn as much as he has when they view the exhibit for themselves.
“I truly feel that there is no better way to explore a community and local history than through the work of its people, something that I hope this exhibit can at least partially highlight,” Lang said. “I have learned just how significant the iron and steel industry was to Johnstown's development and how deeply it permeated community life. It was something very new to me, having not grown up or lived in such an environment. I also grew to appreciate the diverse economy that developed around the steel mills, one that I find especially interesting and that does not always get the attention it should. Johnstown has a rich history of manufacturing, defense work, railroads and industries, stores and local businesses. I especially enjoyed exploring the history of Penn Traffic and Glosser Bros. It really was eye-opening, and it has made me look forward to future projects where I can use this history.”
Above all, Lang said, he wants viewers to “show people how in Johnstown, work created work.”
“All of the work people did was connected to and depended on the work of others,” he said. “The steel mills employed people who shopped in stores and took advantage of local services, manufacturers produced goods for the mills, companies delivered goods to stores in trucks manufactured in town. No matter what a person's job was, it had a role in this larger community of work that made Johnstown run. I hope that the exhibit can highlight this idea.”
For Johnstowners who have lived and worked in this area for decades, Lang said this exhibit may bring back memories.
“I think the exhibit will evoke memories for people, both those who worked at some of the places we mentioned, or encountered them in the course of their day,” he said. “We have many objects that highlight different dimensions of work, but, for me, it is the photographs in the exhibit showing people on the job that will evoke the most memories. Work is a shared experience we all have; seeing someone doing their job can immediately bring forth memories of ourselves and others and the work we have done.”
In his role as JAHA’s curator, Lang said he encourages people to not only make time to see, but also make time to contribute to the exhibit.
“I hope people come to see this exhibit so they can see the different types of work Johnstown has supported, but also so they can take part in an exhibit that is on-going,” Lang said. “I have never believed in the idea that an exhibit ‘opens’ and just sits there. I want exhibits to be opportunities for discussion, opportunities for visitors to contribute to these stories that are part of their own history. So, we are continuing to work on the exhibit because I want to be a springboard for these discussions.
“We obviously could not tell the whole story of work in Johnstown, and there remain things I did not get a chance to explore. But that is the good thing about this exhibit—it is flexible enough where things can be added as myself and the museum continue to explore the kinds of work people have done.”
Those who view the exhibit over the course of the next few weeks will be welcomed and encouraged to provide their own thoughts and perspectives on Johnstown’s current work scene by leaving their thoughts and ideas in the gallery space.
“In this way, the last part of the exhibit will be partially ‘community curated,’” Lang said. “I hope that this will be a chance for people to tell us what they think about work in Johnstown and for them to see their work as a key part of this larger historical narrative. Visitors throughout the summer can come to the museum, where we will have question prompts in the gallery and the opportunity to contact me with comments, content, ideas and more. Lastly, we anticipate that this final section of the exhibit (titled ‘Johnstown at Work Today’) will open in early September after Labor Day, which we feel will be a perfect time to talk about labor in Johnstown and what it has meant to the community.”
Lang and Kelly brought the “Johnstown: Where We Work” exhibit to fruition with the help of several interns and volunteers. Interns included Nadine Carr, a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Laura Foose of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Jonathan Van Dermark of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
“This exhibit truly was co-curated with Marcia,” Lang said. “Without her, it would not have happened, and I benefited from her design expertise, selection of artifacts and photographs, and knowledge of the collections. Nadine, Laura, and Jonathan were also a great help on the exhibit. As interns, they showed true aplomb in working at the museum through very busy periods and a curator who was still getting used to the job. With very little experience, they were able to quickly get a handle on exhibit research and interpretation and put together strong content. I gave them their own sections to work on and they delivered. I hope that they will continue to pursue work in museums. They will all be an asset to the field.”
He said he’s grateful to the people who have contributed artifacts and stories to the exhibit so far. Lang’s talks with them led to some oral history interviews.
“I hope to continue conducting these interviews throughout the summer and into the future, even beyond the exhibit's duration,” he said. “Beyond providing information and content for the exhibit, these interviews are key artifacts of how we in Johnstown come to understand our work and how it fits into the city's history. It is truly fascinating.”
Admission to the exhibit is included in standard admission to the Heritage Discovery Center. The exhibit can be viewed between the hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
“One artifact in the exhibit I like is a hard hat worn by Tom Segurs, and employee at Bethlehem Steel,” Lang said. “It is painted with several vivid decorations, including the name ‘Crazy Horse,’ which was Tom's nickname. For me, this hat really captures the camaraderie and community that people develop with co-workers, as well as the ways in which we look to assert our own sense of self on the job.”