In this Heritage Blogger profile, conservator Dan Cull of the appropriately named “Dan Cull Weblog” examines how blogging has helped him become a more confident and culturally aware person. He also calls for a new organizational model for conservation built on collaboration and interdisciplinary discourse.
Why did you start the Dan Cull Weblog?
To be honest I am still not 100 percent sure why I started the blog! I will however tell the story of its creation. I knew I wanted to write about conservation issues, and I also knew that a lot of what I wanted to say would not get published in traditional conservation venues, and much of it would not be in depth enough to create larger publishing projects. I had been throwing the idea of online publishing around in my head for a while but hadn’t really worked out a way of undertaking this. While I was working at the National Museum of the American Indian, I received a little push in the right direction from Intern Rose Daly who was working on developing her blog called DalyConservation, she introduced me to the incredibly user-friendly blogging platform WordPress. I initially wanted to buy a url, however, I couldn’t think of anything suitably witty as a name and so decided to simply use my name to test out the platform using the free version. I decided to retain this free site as it had become somewhat recognized amongst the conservation blogosphere, and it seemed sensible therefore to retain the ‘brand’, even if it being my name means that it is limited in terms of expansion potential.
How is writing for a blog different?
When the blog started I was a little directionless, partly because I had become so used to the academic style of writing. I had become conditioned to the condition report as the conservation style, and I knew that I didn’t want to focus on objects, or treatments, as it was, and remains, my opinion that this focus has been detrimental to the conservation of cultural heritage. In addition I found this style of writing was incredibly unappealing. I also knew that the conservation focus on high culture and art was something that held very little interest for me, and I wanted to bring low culture, folk culture, indigenous culture, alternative culture and internet culture into my conservation discourse. So, I therefore first had to break away from this style of writing about and understanding of conservation. The style and content of the blog has taken a long time to develop although I think I have slowly managed to replace the traditional conservation style with a more conversational and/or polemic approach that is beginning to facilitate me developing my own style of blogging. It’s still a long way from the dreams of writing with the impact of Gonzo. Although, that being said there has been other developments along the way too. I originally described the blog as a conservation blog, however, this quickly developed to additionally include the categories ‘archaeology, anthropology, art and culture’, which seemed appropriate as it was these fields of thought I was drawing ideas from and engaging with. More recently two additional categories have grown in significance for the blog: Web 2.0 and guest bloggers. In this way I hope it is clear that the blog is a constant work in progress, it remains a space for public introspection; for questioning received wisdom, for developing ideas, and bringing interesting concepts from other fields to my understanding of the conservation world.
What do you most enjoy about blogging?
Of the many things I enjoy about blogging, perhaps most enjoyable has been the feeling of being part of a growing online conservation community, not only of bloggers and those who comment on blogs, but also those who use social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, as well as those who are involved in open access publishing. This community of conservators is unique in that it is not limited by career position, age group, nationality, occupation, or institutional affiliation. As a Utopian dreamer, I see such a group as forming the genesis for a new organizational model for conservation, one built on collaboration and interdisciplinary discourse. This community is also interesting as it naturally draws people into it from all professions and walks of life. In my blogging I have most enjoyed received comments from people in a variety of both conservation and non-conservation fields about my posts, I have discovered information about conservation that I would literally never have found out from reading all the available conservation literature, that has been sent to me from people working in other professions who have interests that cross over with those raised by posts on my blog. To my mind this is groundbreaking in its research potential and on a more basic level it is simply incredibly enjoyable to learn new things.
It has also been a privilege to assist new conservation bloggers whenever asked to do so, and although I am no expert on blogging or blogging software, I am happy to share what I have learnt so far, and to point people in the direction of more information. I would say though that the best way to learn blogging is to read lots of blogs, experiment with your own blog and to use the internet to seek answers.
How has the blog been received?
I guess I can’t be doing too badly if you’re interested in interviewing the blog here! Actually I think it’s tricky to know how well the blog has been received, and in reality that is not important to me. However, to share some statistics: the number of hits per month has increased nearly every month since its inception, and in the month of August 2009 I received my largest monthly rate with over 10,000 hits. The previous few months having received in excess of 5,000 hits a month. I imagine this to be a respectable amount for a blog predominantly about conservation. These sort of figures are often considered about blogs, however, these numbers are essentially meaningless. A more interesting signifier of whether anyone finds the blog useful might be the number of incoming links, I currently have 24 incoming links from the last year, that is to say 24 blog posts have linked to content within posts on my blog; this doesn’t include links to the blog url itself. Another possibly useful source of data might be the number of comments, it is in fact the comments that I personally find the most rewarding signifier of whether something has gathered any interest, currently I have 274 comments over 193 posts, which seems a pretty good rate. Although, I think my favorite signifier has been that my blog has appeared at least twice on CNN’s “from the blogs list” for being early enough in breaking a story that I was listed as they covered the story.
All these figures are of limited use, more interesting I think has been the enthusiasm with which several people responded to my offer in a 2009 New Year post to become guest bloggers. I’d like to thank my guest bloggers: Richard McCoy, Crista Pack, Julie Heath, Laura Brill, and Jeff Guin for their willingness to be associated with the blog and to use the blog as a platform for discussions they were interested in having. The offer remains open to any potential guest bloggers to contact me if they’d like to post on the blog to discuss their ideas. I believe that these guest posts are the most interesting indicator that the blog has been received positively by at least some people, which is very flattering, and quite unexpected.
You’ve been blogging for a while now. What lessons have you learned and how is your blog now different as a result?
I think my biggest lesson has been to just try it out. There’s really no better way of learning how to blog, and in fact I think this is true of all social media. I think I also learnt early on that it is important to write about yourself and what interests you. A weblog was originally a form of online diary, and I believe the best blogs continue in that format. They may or may not be more academic in their style, but, at their core they are about people, and not institutions, corporations, or other abstractions. This approach to writing about myself and my culture, and my interests has I believe been the greatest influence on the style and content of my blog.
In terms of writing blog posts, embedding and hyperlinking are the two most significant methods of making posts interesting. I learnt that there is a skill, even an art, to good linking and embedding, and it is one I am still trying to develop. As a general rule I tend to link as much as possible and embed as much as possible too. The idea being that it is better to provide links and allow the reader to decide on what information they wish to follow up on rather than limiting them to your own thoughts. Generally images and video really improve the quality of a blog post and as a rule I don’t think posts should be made without one or the other. It’s important to remember that interesting blogs are more than repeating news feeds from other websites, which is a task better achieved using an RSS reader.
I think the best advice is to read lots of blogs, find those you like, and try and understand why you like them, and then copy elements from different blogs you like, and to add your own twist. As with any other form of expression blogs are about style and content, there is both an art and a science to producing a good blog post. Mostly I think it takes practice to develop your own style and confidence in your own approach. I believe this learning process can be observed in the development of my blog as I continue to try and develop my own style.
How has blogging changed you?
I have to admit that blogging has changed me, and how I view conservation. Blogging has in many ways been my gateway into the wider relationship between Web 2.0 and conservation, and this has fundamentally shifted my understanding of the possibilities of conservation. I find the massive potential of Web 2.0 to be incredibly exciting and at the same time frustrating because of the wide spread resistance to these ideas. However, on the plus side blogging has helped me to come to a much greater understanding of the internet, and the many subcultures of the internet. I have come to feel a part of some of those subcultures through my exploration and involvement in them. This greater understanding has led me to consider their conservation as important aspects of ethnographic conservation. Through exploring theoretical ideas in the blog I have gained a greater appreciation for the postmodernist approach to conservation theory and practice that has been a central part of my training, and experience, as a conservator, an approach that emphasizes ideas such as stewardship, subjectivity, consultation and collaboration. Blogging has also allowed me to further develop my personal preference for a melding of high and low, in all forms of cultural expression. Blogging has helped me to reemphasize the importance, to me, of my own cultures and identities, it has also been a forum through which I can present these cultures as they are excluded from most museum environments. In many respects blogging has made me more confident about who I am, and has led me to a greater understanding of the industry in which I work.