A smiling woman outside.
“It’s quite fascinating to see what parts of history people are inclined to absorb and to think about, because we all have different interests,” said VCU alum Meika Downey. (Contributed photo)

Alum Meika Downey brings Virginia’s rich history to life

One of the first to earn VCU’s public history graduate certificate, Downey works as the education manager for Preservation Virginia.

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For Meika Downey, education manager at Preservation Virginia, choosing a favorite of the historic sites the organization manages is like choosing a favorite child — an impossible decision.

She admits she has a bias for Richmond’s John Marshall House, which she calls a “hidden gem” of the city, and where her own history with Preservation Virginia started three years ago.

In 2017, Downey graduated from Hollins University with a B.A. in history and political science before coming to Virginia Commonwealth University the following year. As part of the history M.A. program, she was awarded the Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award in the humanities and fine arts category.

In addition, Downey was part of the first cohort to receive a graduate certificate in public history from VCU. (The Department of History also offers a concentration in public history for undergraduates.) Public history explores how the public absorbs and learns about history through public-facing institutions, according to Downey. That means historical sites, libraries and museums such as the ones operated by Preservation Virginia.

Preservation Virginia is the nation’s oldest statewide historic preservation organization. It advocates to policymakers for historic preservation around the state, physically preserves historic structures and spaces, and owns and operates six historic sites in Virginia: Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown, the John Marshall House, Historic Jamestowne, Smith’s Fort, Bacon’s Castle and Cape Henry Lighthouse.

Though she’s always been fascinated by the educational side of history, Downey knew she didn’t want to teach in a formal way. She started with Preservation Virginia as the John Marshall House’s education manager in the summer of 2020, where she found she got to engage with people in a much more dynamic way than a traditional classroom.

A woman stands in front of the front porch of a house.
Meika Downey, education manager for Preservation Virginia, started with the organization at the John Marshall House in 2020. (Contributed photo)

“It’s quite fascinating to see what parts of history people are inclined to absorb and to think about, because we all have different interests,” Downey said. “And then, just helping people find connections to the past in ways that they didn’t expect.”

After a year in that role, the organization recognized a need for a statewide education manager, so Downey stepped up to the plate.

Now, she oversees the development and facilitation of all of Preservation Virginia’s public education. That includes many things, but one of the most significant is developing school programs and field trip activities for students. She helps to manage historic interpretation at all five museums — meaning what history each museum shares with the public and how they share it. That includes the content of guided tours, school presentations and activities, museum exhibitions, signage, social media presence, museum publications and more. Downey said this part of her job is to help expand the organization’s research about the history they tell, to train staff in best interpretive practices and to inspire creative storytelling.

“This state has an incredibly rich history and the same is true for our five historic sites,” Downey said. “They all have a robust historic spectrum, and it’s an incredible responsibility and obligation to share with the public true, accurate and inclusive histories.”

One of Downey’s current educational programs is a virtual field trip to Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown about Henry’s road to revolution. Intended for 4th to 8th graders, the program traces Henry’s life trajectory that led him to make his famous “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech at St. John’s Church in 1775. The virtual program incorporates exercises in historian skills such as primary source analysis, critical thinking and evaluating change over time.

Downey also serves on the Junior Board of Historic Richmond, which works to preserve Richmond’s historic homes, structures and landscapes.

“For me, getting involved with Historic Richmond was just continuing to put myself more deeply in this community of historic preservation and cultural heritage in Virginia,” Downey said.

The Junior Board advocates for Historic Richmond, bringing awareness to historic spaces and preservation, and supports the “Big Board” of Historic Richmond as well.

“It’s quite an honor to be on Historic Richmond’s Junior Board,” Downey said. “It’s all younger, growing professionals or those who are quite passionate about history and historic preservation. It’s a fun extracurricular.”

Suffice to say, Downey believes in the educational power of museums and other institutions of public history.

“Museums and historic institutions are so special because we have a physical manifestation of the past, whether that’s a brick-and-mortar exhibition, whether that’s an artifact of any kind, whether that’s an archive, or in my case, a historic house or space,” Downey said. “These are physical representations of the past, and you don’t often get to engage with those when you’re in the history classroom, in a formal setting.”