In 1974, a college graduate embarked on his career goal of teaching history to high school students in a Paterson, New Jersey, classroom. Not content to take a break from his students in the summers, John Herbst began applying for grants ranging from $75 to $500 to support student-created exhibits, brochures and walking tours.
After three years, he became curator of history at the city museum that set him on the path to a four-decade career as a museum leader who remains passionate about state and local history. After tenures as director of education at the New Jersey Historical Society and founding executive director of the American Labor Museum, he became executive director of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. Under his leadership, it was reinvented as the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, going from five employees to 90, with a building more than 10 times the size of the old one and a budget 20 times the size.
John then started moving mountains in Indiana – first as president at Conner Prairie and then as CEO at the Indiana State Museum. Lauded as “an unusually influential shaper of historical practice in early 21st-century Indiana” by the Indiana Magazine of History, John is known as one of the state’s most effective leaders and fundraisers. “John is one of those rare individuals who have the vision and big ideas and the energy and skills to make those dreams a reality,” says Brent Glass, director emeritus, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
In his 10 years as president and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society, John Herbst has tirelessly worked to raise funds and transform the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center from a great archive to the cultural destination it is today. While IHS is still committed to its mission to collect, preserve and share the state’s past, the public presence of the History Center has changed dramatically. The Indiana Experience, which opened in 2010, brings IHS two-dimensional collections to life – through actors and with the help of technology – and draws tens of thousands of people every year.
Led by John’s vision, IHS has won several national awards for innovation in exhibitions, programs, educational outreach and publishing, and has initiated collection efforts for underrepresented communities. He also created the Heritage Support Grants program, made possible by Lilly Endowment, Inc., to support hundreds of Indiana’s historical organizations, leaving a statewide legacy. “The comparison of where IHS was before John took the helm and where it is today is mind-boggling, really,” says IHS Board of Trustees Chair David Evans.
Happy Anniversary, John!