Dr. Ann Woods, professor of art history, shares discovering her love for art history in France, her background in Roman art and architecture, and the importance of a liberal arts education.
Artwork by artwork and building by building, Professor Ann Woods is opening up UC San Diego’s students to the world of art history and architecture. She channels her own passion for the history and storytelling she sees in art around the world to share it with her students, many of whom have never been introduced to the subject before.
Woods got her first look at the world of art history when she visited Tokyo as a child and stayed at the Imperial Hotel, which was designed by the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
“We stayed there for a week, and I rambled all over the hotel. It was just extraordinary inside and out; I’ve never forgotten the experience,” Woods remembered. “And the next year we went back, they had demolished it to build a big generic skyscraper with more hotel rooms. It was so sad.”
Woods didn’t realize her passion for art history until she spent her junior year of her undergraduate education in Paris. After taking a few art history classes in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, she fell in love with the subject.
“Because I was a student at the University of Paris, I had a pass that would get me into all the museums free at any time. I would go to the Louvre like twice a week!” Woods recalled. “I always liked history, but seeing the images and the buildings made history real to me. And so I realized: I have to do this.”
Inspired by the history behind the art and structures she had admired for a year, Woods went on to get her doctorate at UCLA. Though she originally thought she would focus on nineteenth-century French art and history, she eventually decided to specialize in Greco-Roman art and architecture, with a minor in medieval art. She completed a dissertation studying the tombs of a Roman priesthood of ex-slaves that documented their ascent into Roman society. Her face lit up as she elaborated on a subject near and dear to her.
“I like Roman social history. The fact that ex-slaves gained Roman citizenship, and they could own a business and become really wealthy — I found that so interesting. A number of them built really important tombs because they wanted to be remembered and leave a record of their accomplishments,” Woods said, who spent much of her time analyzing these very records. “The first Roman priesthood gave these ex-slaves a way to participate in their cities, and lots of them advertised the fact that they were priests on their tombs.”
Eight years ago, Woods joined the City of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board in an effort to learn about San Diego architecture, so that she could incorporate it into her history of architecture class. She now serves as the board’s art historian.
“They designate buildings and houses as important resources that should be preserved. It’s amazing; there are neighborhoods that are filled with craftsman houses that were put up in the 1910s and 1920s, and there are old Victorians from the 1880s,” Woods marvelled. “You can’t just turn every building into a museum. They need to be adapted for some sort of modern reuse. We try to negotiate that.”
While teaching her Introduction to Art History class, Woods found that many of her students’ minds have been broadened while learning about ancient societies. She believes art history is a truly interdisciplinary subject which can aid students in their other classes and even in other walks of life.
“I’ve had people take history classes and then say, ‘I’ve actually learned more history in art history classes than in history class.’ I think they remember it better,” Woods remarked.
There are common misconceptions on campus — chock full of science, technology, engineering, and math majors — that a major like art history isn’t applicable to life after the undergraduate years. According to Woods, that just isn’t the case. She believes there are many things you can do with an art history degree.
“There’s teaching of course, and not just at the university level. There’s museum work and programs in arts administration and museum studies. There’s writing for art magazines or columns like the art critic in the New York Times, and there are lawyers who specialize in artistic copyright,” Woods pointed out.
Furthermore, the major is versatile. Woods is earnest in emphasizing the value of pursuing what interests you and what you will succeed at while in college; one can never know what path it might lead them down.
“You’re only in college once, and you should take what you love. You will do better, and you’ll come out as a more well-rounded person,” Woods asserted. “To be an art history major doesn’t mean you have to have a career in art history. It means you can go on to business school or law school, or you can do anything with a good liberal arts education.”
Woods thinks that part of getting a college education is building up a cultured mind that is open and knowledgeable about the world around you. As a frequent international traveler (she’s been to Oxford, Prague, Budapest and Greece in the past year alone), Woods knows firsthand how much more rewarding a trip abroad is when one has plenty of knowledge about the sights they’re seeing in their back pocket.
“I think more students should take art history,” Woods said. “Students are going to travel and go to museums, and I think a college graduate should be able to wander through a museum and have an idea of what they’re looking at.”
Woods’ favorite part about teaching, besides the fact that there are always new things to discover about art history, is the fact that her subject matter is exciting to students — at first, they don’t quite know what to expect, but they become interested in spite of themselves.
“I think art history is fun, and I get really positive feedback. Students travel and then they email me with a photo of them in the Sainte-Chapelle, excited that they got to see it,” Woods describes. “Students are excited about this field. It’s still interesting. I’m still learning new things.”