Indiana’s largest independent historical group has named a president and CEO to succeed longtime leader John A. Herbst, who is expected to retire Dec. 31 after 12 years in the job.
Jody Blankenship will take over the lead role at the Indiana Historical Society in late January, the Indianapolis-based organization announced Wednesday.
Blankenship has worked in historical education and preservation for more than two decades, including his current post as CEO of the Connecticut Historical Society. He will start the new job Jan. 21.
He said he is eager to take over the role, noting he has a “deep respect” for IHS’s efforts in historic preservation.
“This is one of the best historical societies in the country; an opportunity like this doesn’t come up very often,” he said. “It’s sort of a dream job, so I went for it.”
Blankenship, 42, grew up Toledo, Ohio, and has spent several years in the Midwest, both as an educator and a member of historical groups. He was education director for the statewide historical society in Kentucky and worked in outreach and field services for Ohio’s historical group.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from Ohio Northern University and his master’s in history museum studies from the State University of New York’s Cooperstown graduate program.
He said he sees the role played by the Indiana Historical Society as crucial for future Hoosiers, but added he wants to ensure people can recognize their own role in the state’s history.
“The world is more complicated than it’s ever been, so if we can give people the skills to understand their world—with the benefit of that historical content—and the ability to think about it in the ways historians do, we just build a better and stronger community,” he said.
Blankenship over the years has helped improve the visitor experience at the Connecticut Historical Society, including an effort to increase hours and advance cataloging of information and materials.
The Connecticut society saw a boost in public exhibitions in recent years, jumping from three to nine total displays. It also increased public access to historic documents and launched a partnership to better tell the stories of all the demographic groups represented throughout Connecticut.
Blankenship led efforts to significantly increase the organization’s revenue, increasing annual fundraising and helping assets grow to $56 million.
He said he and the Indiana Historical Society’s board of trustees are expected to soon begin a long-range planning process.
Blankenship said he is hoping to hear from those around the state about their own interest in history, and to better understand the people and communities the IHS serves.
Blankenship will oversee the not-for-profit’s research library and Indiana history archives, including documents and information on the Old Northwest Territory. The group, headquartered at 450 W. Ohio St. on downtown's Central Canal, also offers support to local museums and historical groups, sponsors workshops, generates publications, hosts art exhibitions and performances, and offers family programming.
Under Herbst, who has led the group since 2006, IHS underwent extensive expansion and introduced a slew of new state engagement programs.
Herbst began with the group a few years after the fallout from the split of Conner Prairie from Earlham College was finalized in 2005—he led the Hamilton County attraction until his dismissal by the college in 2003. In between the Conner Prairie post and joining IHS, he also oversaw the Indiana State Museum, among other roles.
Blankenship said he believes he has big shoes to fill in taking over Herbst’s role, but said he is eager to gain a better understanding for Indiana’s history and to see firsthand the work being done by the organization.
“To follow somebody like John Herbst, who is very much a legend in our field … you know you’re stepping into a strong institution that’s had strong leadership,” he said.
Blankenship said in addition to focusing on the long-term future of Indiana Historical Society, he will seek out new ways to engage the community and those who visit Indiana looking for a first-class historical experience. Blankenship said he hopes to continue working with existing partners, in addition to the possibility of adding other partnerships.
Board chair David S. Evans said the group sees Blankenship’s hiring as “a source of excitement” for the society, and said the group hopes to continue to connect Hoosiers with their history.
“His energy, enthusiasm and instinct, along with his commitment to history and passion for excellence, will continue our work to take IHS to new heights,” Evans said. “We are poised to connect even more people with Indiana’s past — something that will inform our present and shape our future.”