Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Teachers' Guide

Telling the Story: During Your Visit

Materials list for this lesson
Readings Activities Primary sources


        ** Referenced PA Standards **

Activity sheets for students:

The following two gallery activities take different approaches, although both depend on using primary sources at the Johnstown Flood Museum. Choose and adapt the activity that best meets your instructional goals. The first activity "Silent Survivors: The Tales I Could Tell" is a creative writing exercise that requires students to focus on one object to write an imaginary narrative from the point-of-view of an artifact that survived the Flood.

In the second activity, "Telling the Flood Story," students survey (rather than focus on) the variety of media and messages used to convey the Johnstown Flood story in 1889 when it occurred and at the turn of the 21st century, when the Johnstown Flood Museum was built. Through this process they will analyze and evaluate what types of media work best for different parts of the story.

Silent Survivors: The Tales I Could Tell

Distribute the worksheet "Silent Survivors: The Tales I Could Tell" (JFM-story-during wksht01.pdf, 1.9 mb PDF).

Have students pick one of the artifact "survivors" displayed in the large case on the first floor of the Johnstown Flood Museum.

After they've chosen their artifacts, they should spend their first few minutes with the artifact drawing it in as much detail as they can (this is a sure-fire way to make sure they spend time really looking at the object carefully).

Story-Starter Questions

As students draw, side-coach with these story-starter questions (not to be answered out-loud, but to be considered as they write their stories):

  • Think about what it did before the Flood: Who owned it? Where and how did they come to own it? How long did the owner have the artifact before the Flood? What was its function (job)? How did it feel about its job?
  • What happened when the Flood hit? What might the artifact have seen, heard, or felt, if it could? What were the next ten minutes like being right in the middle of the Flood?
  • Where did it end up after the Flood? How long was it before someone found it? Who rescued it out of the debris? Why? Where did it go next?
  • Did it ever go back to its pre-flood owners? Did its owners even survive the flood? How does the object "feel" about what happened to its owners or about not being returned to them?
  • Where has this artifact been in the 100+ years since it was rescued? What has it been doing?
  • How did it find its way into the museum? What is its job now? How well does it help tell the flood story? How does it feel about being here (a celebrity artifact!)?

After five minutes of drawing time, move on to writing the stories, beginning with "I remember…" They may choose to write in first or third person, depending on what feels most comfortable to them (or what fits your goals).

Give students a specific time limit (that fits your schedule) to work on their artifacts' stories at the museum by telling them they can finish in class or as homework.

Alternate activity

If you are unable to travel to the Johnstown Flood Museum or have limited time there, you may print out photos of the artifacts, cut them apart, and distribute them to students to work with in the classroom.

Telling the Flood Story: Message and media

From the beginning to the present day, the Johnstown Flood has been a story that begged to be told! Journalists and photographers swarmed the ruins as soon as they could buy or borrow transportation to reach the cut-off town. But how do you tell a story so complex and witnessed by thousands, none of whom had the full picture (like elephant described by blind men)?

Background: Message and Media

In studying the media (AKA, developing media literacy) it is helpful to separate the "message" from the "medium" or "media." The "message" is WHAT is being communicated; the "medium" (plural "media") is HOW the message is communicated.

For example, print media all use the written word to send messages, but each story in a print magazine has a different message. In the "Same Flood, Different Story" activity in After your Visit, students will analyze the different messages sent by four stories told using the print medium, a survivor story, an eyewitness story from the PRR, sensationalist story from the Johnstown Horror, and a report published by the State Board of Health. Very different messages! In the same way, photographs can have different messages: landscapes, panoramas, portraits (posed or candid), documentary, staged tourist photos, and faked corpse photos were all used to tell the Flood story.

Another useful distinction is made between "media" and "mass media." "Mass media" are means of communication that reach large numbers of people at the same time. To help students understand the difference between mass media and other communications media, discuss some examples with them. [Examples: radio is mass media, talking on the phone is not, though both are audio communication media; newspapers are mass media, books usually aren't; broadcast TV is mass media, but home videos are not. Movie DVDs are in the middle (there is no firm dividing line).]

On your visit to the Johnstown Flood Museum students can see many media being used to express the many different ways of telling the story of the Flood, not only in 1889, but also to today's audiences in the exhibits themselves!


In this activity students will hunt for the messages and the media used to tell the Flood story in 1889 and beyond. Then they will identify the media the museum uses to communicate to visitors its messages about the flood.

Distribute the worksheet "Telling the Flood Story: Message and Media" (JFM-story-during-wksht02.pdf, 298k PDF). Explain the scavenger hunt nature of the activity: They are looking for as many different messages and media used to tell the Flood story as they can. Rather than having them divide their attention between two tasks, consider having them work on the first hunt "Then…" as an attention focuser during their tour. Then after their tour, use the "Now…" as a review of how the museum also used different media to convey its messages about the Flood. Allow students to disperse among the first floor exhibits to refresh their memories about the media used by the museum (since the first time they went through, they focused on the messages.

Following are some examples (by no means exhaustive) to help you explain the procedure to students and lead discussion later.

Examples of Messages and Media Used in 1889
Medium/media: Story-telling method Message: What information or part of the story does it tell? Methods we use today to tell this kind of story

Using words

Doctor's logbook

Death roll

Newspaper articles


List of injuries

List of the identified dead

Survivor stories, news stories about recovery

Sensationalist stories about looting and lynching


Computer database

Web site, TV news ticker

TV interviews, TV talk shows; TV "magazine" news (48 Hours, 60 Minutes); talk radio; magazines; newspapers; Web sites

National Enquirer, Special Edition

Using images

Prints, magazine articles




Prints: flood hitting, rescue attempts, heroes and villains; all parts of story for newspapers and magazines

Photos: destruction, clean-up, relief efforts, suffering of survivors


Interactive 3D animation; movie special effects; reenactment

TV network news; TV "magazine" news (48 Hours, 60 Minutes); magazines; newspapers; Web sites


Sheet music


Amusement park exhibit Commemoratives: spoons, plates, prints


Hero stories

Individual stories

Horror of being a Flood victim


Recorded music, radio, MTV, downloadable music. Benefit concerts (Farm-Aid, Tsunami Aid)

Movies, DVDs, made-for-TV movie, mini-series

Disney World

Omnimax or Imax

T-shirts, mugs, awareness ribbons and wristbands


  • Which of the story-telling methods on your list are mass media? Which are not? Why?
  • Which of the stories told using non-mass media would translate best to mass media?
Examples of Messages and Media the Museum Uses Today
Message: What part of the Flood story are they telling? Medium/media: How are they telling this part of the story? What other media could they use? Which would work best? Why?
Geography, path of the flood 3-D model with lights and sound

Timeline (example)

Plain map

Virtual reality 3-D animation, special effects, IMAX

Life size reconstruction on back wall

Surviving artifacts

Old photos

Stereo view slide show


Sound effects

Movie special effects

Before and after photos, models, illustrations
Overview before, during, after the Flood Film  
How the flood wave moved, why it was so destructive Video animation Interactive 3-D animation, virtual reality animation



  • Could the animated map model be adapted to mass media? Why or why not? What can a museum do that mass media can't? What can mass media do better than a museum?
  • If you could add something to the museum exhibit, what would it be? Why?
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