John Herbst was appointed president and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society in 2006. For more than 40 years, he has worked as an educator, curator and exhibit specialist and as CEO of museums in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
John began his career as a high school teacher in 1974 at Paterson Catholic High School in New Jersey where he moderated a junior historian club. He involved his students in award-winning local history projects, creating publications and exhibits. In 1977, he became the curator of history at the Paterson Museum and was instrumental in later having the museum moved from tiny cramped quarters to the Rogers Locomotive Shop in the Great Falls Historic District where he was on the board of directors for 10 years. He also served as a trustee of the Passaic County Historical Society for a decade.
In 1979, he became director of education at the New Jersey Historical Society. After four years he left to become the founding director of the American Labor Museum at the Botto House National Landmark. He directed the breakthrough three-site exhibition Life and Times in Silk City.
In 1986, he started an 11- year stint as the executive director of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. John was the lead professional and visionary for an immense project to move the HSWP from its 15,000-square-foot headquarters to the 160,000-square-foot 1898 Chatauqua Ice Company building. This became the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh History Center which opened exactly 10 years after his arrival. During those 10 years, the HSWP raised $55 million in operating and capital support and increased its staff from five employees to 90 to become the largest historical society in Pennsylvania. When the new History Center opened, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough called John “the builder, who makes a difference wherever he goes.”
His years in Pittsburgh saw huge membership growth and the additions of many valuable ethnic, industrial and business collections of archives and artifacts. The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania went from having a marginalized and limited community role to become a major, vital cultural institution in the region. John also initiated a joint operating agreement with Meadowcroft Village, which is the site of the Meadow Rock Shelter, a major archeological dig.
For five years, John was president of Conner Prairie where he expanded the historic areas to include a Native American site and a working Victorian farm. He increased attendance by 77 percent and led a major change to improve the level of engagement of visitors during their museum experience called Opening Doors. This initiative won national awards and influenced other history museums across the country. Also during his tenure, Follow the North Star, an evening program in which visitors become runaway slaves, was introduced to convey an understanding of racism and the Underground Railroad.
Working with Conner Prairie’s community-based board of directors, John played an instrumental role in settling a 30-year dispute between Conner Prairie and its trustee Earlham College. In 2006, the state attorney general split off Conner Prairie from Earlham, giving the museum its independence. John says this was one of the proudest moments in his life.
For the two years prior to his appointment at IHS, he was the president and CEO of the Indiana State Museum, Historic Sites and Foundation. John brought the blockbuster exhibit Lord of the Rings to the State Museum in 2005, drawing the largest attendance since the museum opened. Since coming to IHS in 2006, John has led the creation of the Indiana Experience, an award-winning new public dimension for the History Center building, and in raising more nearly $18 million for its support. In the last five years, John has put an emphasis on creating programs, services and cultural products to observe the Bicentennial of Statehood and on efforts to make IHS collections even more representative and to provide greater access and connections to Hoosier history.
Active in many national professional associations, John has served as the treasurer of the American Association for State and Local History as well as on the Indiana State Tourism Council, Mid-Atlantic Museum Association, Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Societies, and the Board of State Advisers to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He currently serves on the boards of directors of the Crown Hill Cemetery Foundation, Visit Indy, and the Kennedy-King Memorial. He also serves on the AASLH Emeritus Council. In 42 years of public service, he created several hundred jobs and helped launch the careers of many museum professionals, providing wide-ranging opportunities and mentoring.
John resides at Historic Twin Oaks, a stewardship property of IHS. His main avocation is gardening. As resident curator, he is renovating and maintaining the extensive gardens there. He was the winner of the 2006 Golden Trowel Award from Garden Design magazine. The garden at John’s previous home was featured in several publications including Victorian Homes, Better Homes and Gardens: Garden Design and Outdoor Living, House Trends, The Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis Business Journal. He has one son, John (IV)."A Life in Public History: A Conversation with John Herbst"
Read "A Life in Public History: A Conversation with John Herbst" from the June 2011 issue of the Indiana Magazine of History.