For Angela May, an M.A. in Art History from UAB is a passport to a globetrotting career.

Angela May, M.A. Art History

Angela May, Assistant Curator of Education at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), says that art is the lens through which she sees the world. “I have always searched for patterns and repetition in everything I see,” she says. “From the carvings on a jewelry box my godmother brought back for me from the Philippines to the abstract designs on dinnerware, I’ve always questioned what these compositions are trying to tell me. I just like to decode things. When I took my first intro to art history course, we spent a lot of time learning how symbolism in art is the answer key to understanding the time, place, and culture an object was made in. I have been hooked on art history ever since.”

May completed an M.A. in Art History at UAB in 2014. “I knew I wanted to get my masters at UAB because I specifically wanted to study under Dr. Cathleen Cummings. My focus is South and Southeast Asian art... Dr. Cummings is an Asian art historian and she decoded an entire temple in India!” May remains in touch with Dr. Cummings and still reaches out to her for advice on projects. “That is the type of high-level mentorship you receive at UAB,” May says.

“Every aspect of my job is dependent upon the art historical practices and methods I learned in the M.A. in Art History program at UAB,” May says. The program provided a “foundation of art historical context, projects to help me craft my teaching methods, opportunities for public speaking, and techniques for interpretation and research.

Angela May conducts an accessible tour, allowing vision-impaired guests to experience the artwork via touch.

“One of the highlights of studying at UAB was the graduate assistantship program… I got an early start on working in the field… working with students and helping people find their ‘ah-ha!’ moment. Being a TA really helped me land a job as an adjunct instructor teaching art history at Auburn University right after I graduated.

“My thesis focused on Southeast Asian tattoos called Sak Yant. I trace their transition from yantras in India to magical Buddhist tattoos in Southeast Asia by decoding the various designs these tattoos. I was very fortunate to receive an Ireland Research Travel Award that allowed me to go to Cambodia and Thailand and conduct fieldwork. I am forever grateful to Caroline Ireland and the late Charles W. Ireland for the opportunity.

“While in Southeast Asia, I interviewed people that have these tattoos and the arjans and monks that give these tattoos, I photographed tattoos and texts that document the various designs and symbols incorporated into these tattoos, and I received one of these sacred tattoos in order to have first-hand experience of this practice. Receiving my Sak Yant was one of the most precious moments of my life.

“Having these first-hand experiences of the region and culture surrounding these tattoos slightly changed the direction of my thesis. Through traveling, my focus on these tattoos shifted from solely focusing on the design of these tattoos, to using Sak Yant as a vehicle for how there is a hybrid religion forming in Thailand that consists of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Animism.

“Traveling abroad influenced me beyond my thesis. For an art historian, travel provides a direct link between the past and present life of an object, it puts works of art that you’ve only seen isolated on a screen or in a book into context, and it fosters a deeper connection and appreciation for the culture that created the thing that you love. I now have the good fortune to consistently travel to Asia. Last summer I went to Bali and Java visiting archaeological sites, and I recently went on a Museum trip to India where I collected images and videos to incorporate into teacher resources and digital interpretation for the BMA.

“As Assistant Curator of Education at the BMA, I work on art interpretation and visitor engagement. I focus on creating visitor experiences that empower people to explore and enjoy art beyond the traditional art historical hierarchies… Whether it’s public lecture or tour, a digital scavenger hunt that helps visitors explore the galleries in a new way, or simply an interactive image that allows the visitor to decode a work of art at their own pace and interest level, I always make sure the visitor has control over how they want to take in information about artworks.”

May is leading a BMA docent trip to Southeast Asia in February 2020. “The trip is designed to connect works in the BMA’s collection to regions in which the works were made,” she says. In her role at the BMA, she is facilitating engagement and connections that are similar to those she experienced as an M.A. student in the UAB Department of Art and Art History.

Angela May holds the goggles used for empathy tours at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

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