Looking Back Through the Archive

Posted on: 3rd February 2023

Take a read of our new volunteer Emily's experience with curating and organising our 40 year archive and check out what she has discovered.

Sign at the Quaking Houses pilot wetland. Photograph by Paul Younger, 1996.
Black and white photograph of a handwritten sign. It reads:

Hello! I am Emily and I’m volunteering with Helix Arts. I’m really excited to be able to delve into Helix Arts Archive.

The first thing to know about the archive is that it is very extensive; it testifies to the entire forty-year history of Helix Arts from 1983 onwards, and has survived a lot – site changes, huge organisational changes, and a lot of hands. It is being added to all the time.

Since September I have been in and out of the archive cupboard and facing down towering box piles of unknown contents certainly felt daunting at first. 

Some of the first big tasks were organising and getting to know the archive include:

  • Investigating the archive storage to get a sense of what is there
  • Creating a preliminary catalogue of items
  • Researching images and documents to reconstruct old projects
  • Keeping an eye out for interesting or mysterious things to return to

There is still loads to look through and a lot that’s yet to be discovered. 

I’ve found a huge variety of items – photographs, documents, letters, DVDs, cassettes, videos, books, reports, play scripts, paintings – and there’s already been some exciting stories starting to emerge!

I wanted to share some artefacts from two different, but related projects from Helix Arts’ history. One at the village of Quaking Houses in Durham and another at the village of Skinningrove in Cleveland. Both of these took place during the mid-90s to the early 2000s, focused on clearing water pollution from industrial activities through the collaborative and democratic efforts of residents, artists and scientists.

From the beginning, the project was collaborative, with Helix Arts participating not only to link up artists to produce fixed landscape designs but to work in a much more experimental way alongside community members to produce their own stories and actions, focusing on well-being, dialogue and heritage.  

I can’t reveal all now, but it won environmental and conservation awards and includes a series of radio broadcasts from Sunderland University’s Radio Utopia as well as a new women’s group and planting projects. 


Photograph by Paul Nugent, 1997.

Photograph by Paul Nugent, 1997.

The work at both Skinningrove and Quaking Houses was huge and complex and brought to the fore the two sides of collaborative working between people with very different but vitally interconnected areas of expertise – in science, art, and local needs, desires and concerns. 

I’m looking forward to digging deeper into these projects and the rest of the archive more in the coming weeks.

Look out for more from the archive secrets soon!