Andrew Lang interviewed for the position of curator with the Johnstown Area Heritage Association on the May 2018 day that the organization hosted an 1889 flood memorial program at Peoples Natural Gas Park that featured an actor recreating the role of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton.
He accepted a job with JAHA and moved to Johnstown two months later – just in time for the AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival, organized and hosted by the heritage association.
Now just two years later, Lang is moving home to Troy, New York, after a whirlwind experience that forged a lasting connection to this steel city and its rich cultural history.
“Here, the history is all around you,” Lang said. “It’s been a wonderful experience to work here for these two years. There are so many ways you can engage with history here. If you’re from Johnstown, that history is very much ingrained in who you are and how you see things.”
Lang’s stay in Johnstown has allowed him to:
• Experience Pennsylvania Railroad Heritage Train and Bus Tours, with stops at key landmarks, including the Johnstown Railroad Station, Railroaders Memorial Museum and Horseshoe Curve.
• Work with ninth-graders at Forest Hills High School as they researched the 1977 Johnstown Flood, including oral history gleaned from interviews with individuals who survived that disaster.
• Help bring in “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” a traveling exhibit on the Holocaust and the Nazi practice of eugenics – “an opportunity to see many different lines of history converge,” Lang said in early 2019.
• Develop the summer 2019 “Johnstown: Where We Work” exhibit, which celebrated the city’s economic history from the 19th century through the present.
• Design and open, working with The Tribune-Democrat, the exhibit “Johnstown’s Game: 75 Years of AAABA Baseball in the Flood City” last August for the 75th anniversary of the tournament.
• Host a discussion group for the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock musical festival last summer – to “commemorate the essence of the ’60s in Johnstown and what it meant to experience that,” he said then.
• And collaborate this spring with the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and the African-American Heritage Society on a local project to preserve the region’s black history through artifacts and interviews with local residents. UPJ history professor Paul Douglas Newman is leading that project.
Last month, Lang shared JAHA archives pertaining to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic with The Tribune-Democrat, comparing that deadly outbreak with conditions during the COVID-19 crisis.
And during the virus shutdown, Lang has been a key player in the development of the “JAHA at Home” initiative, building on his understanding of technology and virtual exhibit visioning to provide digital content for museum “guests” to experience while unable to visit the Heritage Discovery Center, Johnstown Flood Museum or other historic spots.
Richard Burkert, JAHA’s president, said the heritage group will miss the knowledge and passion Lang brings to his job.
“I know he does this with a lot of regret,” Burkert said.
“He really enjoys working in Johnstown.
“Andrew really appreciates the significance of the stories we tell here in Johnstown.”
Lang grew up in Troy, near New York’s capital city of Albany.
He attended Sienna College in Loudonville, New York, earning a degree in history and American studies. He had an internship at a museum in Troy and worked at the Albany Institute of History and Art.
Lang studied at The Cooperstown Graduate Program, securing a master’s degree in museum studies, then worked in Richmond, Virginia, with a consulting company helping the U.S. Navy organize its archives and collections.
Then he heard about a job with a historical center in Johnstown.
“We cast a pretty big net and caught Andrew,” Burkert said.
“Two years ago, I didn’t even know what Johnstown was,” Lang said. “I had heard about the Johnstown flood, but I didn’t know that much about it or the town.”
He is now fully immersed in the city’s past – including three major floods, the rise and decline of the steel industry, the prominence of ethnic populations and traditions.
Johnstown’s “sense of place,” Lang said, “is very permeating and very present.”
He added: “The passage of time makes a place what it is. And the people are a product of that.”
Despite plans to continue his career in the Albany area, Lang hopes to volunteer as a JAHA consultant, working remotely with ongoing projects and new developments.
And he wants to be a part of the organization’s – and the city’s – emergence from the grip of COVID-19, which Burkert said is placing a huge financial burden on the nation’s museum industry.
“There’s a difference between history and nostalgia,” Lang said. “History has always had moments of challenges, and Johnstown has had its fair share of those times. But Johnstown has also seen many moments of resilience, and continually shows the ability to come back from those challenges.
“I feel strongly about the mission of JAHA. I feel strongly about what we do.
“And I feel strongly about Johnstown. So I want to continue to be involved.”
History, Lang said, is a valuable teacher – even for a community fighting to emerge from a global health pandemic.
“No matter what else happens,” he said, “Johnstown will always be a huge part of who I am.”