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The Social Helix

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The Social Helix: Visitor Interpretation as a Tool for Social Development

Alan Machin

This paper was originally presented at the Second World Congress on Heritage Presentation and Interpretation at the University of Warwick in September 1988. A slightly expanded version was published in Uzzell, D (ed)(1989) Heritage Interpretation Volume 2: The Visitor Experience, London, Belhaven Press. This was the second volume of papers drawn from the conference.


Rejecting the Frontier

For more than a century we have tried to escape from the consequences of industrial cities by moving out. Emigration has been an answer and, for many, a necessity, whether to new colonies or to new suburbs. With the end of the middle ages there had come the end of the largely self-contained towns and villages of Western Europe. Exploration and printing opened windows on a world which would value mobility higher than fixity, and change higher than constancy.

As a result, environmental interpretation came to be associated with the explaining of unfamiliar worlds. Town dwellers were shown the wonders of the countryside through excursions and visits to country parks. The inhabitants of the present were shown the past through historic houses and museums. These two activities have often become compensations for the problems of modern urban life. Interpretation has come to be seen as part of a leisure industry instead of community affairs. It is thought of as a luxury instead of an essential, which seems to suggest that interpreters have an uphill struggle in getting the subject accepted in the popular mind.

Interpretation has to help foster understanding, and the world in which most people live is humdrum and often stressful. Many interpreters are now involved with the problems of city life and the challenge of change, and without a broad perspective of the changes which are occurring they are likely to fail. Part of that perspective ought to be seeing interpretation as related to the mechanisms of change and in a wider context than it has been to date: perhaps even in politics.

Rex Beddis, until his untimely death the Humanities Adviser for Avon, called the process ‘experiencing, understanding and shaping place’ (Beddis, 1986). In the broader context of social change we can identify four components - discovery, understanding, debate and reaction - which drive each other in turn, and which in societies create a fourfold spiral of progress - what a systems analyst might call a social helix of change (Figure 1). Such a concept sounds highly theoretical, a model of abstraction. It is not.

It is an idea that has been born out of practical requirements in a lively programme of community regeneration in Calderdale, a district of West Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. It has been formulated to demonstrate the relationships between how people gain their understanding of their world and what they can do to improve it. The various roles of the mass media, education and tourism in creating and changing images can be seen (Machin, 1986). The part played by democratic discussion can be related to community action of a kind which is in sharp contrast to some of the nationally imposed solutions of the present decade.

The four components of the helix need a little more explanation.

Discovery is the first stage. People discover their world first of all from other people — parents, family, friends and acquaintances: it is a circle of contact. This circle can be enlarged by movement — by travel, and therefore by tourism, the missing link of knowledge. Next comes the mass media, induding not only printing and broadcasting but a range of media from art to theatre and even architecture; in all of these an opinion-former can make statements which are disseminated to a huge audience.

Finally there is education, drawing on all the other forms of discovery, and formalized into a distinctive and highly structured activity. These can be described as four dimensions of discovery.

The second component of the helix, the second stage of the process, is understanding. This is where the part of interpretation which deals with mass media activity in the discovery component. Understanding is a function of discovery, but also of individual psychology. It therefore encompasses perception, cognition, interpretation and memory.

Next comes decision-making, whether by ad hoc groups of individuals or by political and commercial processes. The decisions will be taken by individuals after personal consideration, by ad hoc groups, formal committees, legislatures like governments, and consultant groups of all kinds.

Finally, there is the reaction to discovery and discussion — taking action, through social, economic, political and cultural initiatives.
The inter-relationship of these components is what forms the helix, for as they react upon each other, and action in turn spurs on further discoveries, they have a dynamic effect, driving a process of change. But since it is change which is generated, the circle itself moves; symbolically upward for improvement, or downward for failure. To vary the metaphor, the helix is also a spring that powers activity. It only works when the components are right and their interaction is right, which means in practical terms that communities will only be improved if the strategies adopted have the right elements related in the right way: if they are not, like any power source out of control, they will damage things around them. For ourselves, we need to remember that interpreting the world is an inescapable activity, and the question is not whether it is done at all, but how and why it is done.

The helix has been suggested before as a model for communication, notably by Dance (1967) and Noelle-Neumann (1974 and 1980) emphasizing that change is involved in communication processes. It has not, as far as I know, been used to relate discovery, interpretation, democracy and action in a theoretical form. In my own experience of Calderdale, urban renewal theorizing can seem like a substitute for action, but it is still essential to make sure we have got all the elements of our approach correct.

The Growth of Concern

Visitor interpretation has a prehistory, stretching back to the eighteenth century. Between 1780 and 1880 there were established many examples of guided visits, audio-visual centres, museums and collections of flora and &una. In the twentieth century the interpretation of the natural world grew, especially when the need for conservation was recognized. A sense of historic change also spurred an interest in museums and monuments. To the older media of communication were added new techniques, all designed for use on-site: self-guided trails, interpretive panels, listening posts and sound guides.

Most of the new hardware has been funded as part of tourism developent strategies and so a ready market has increased its use. Tourist interpretation is certainly important, but many schemes in the United Kingdom have been aimed at residents as much as visitors. The heritage centre at Faversham, for example, had a major part to play in building local awareness of the town. Warrington’s nature centre at Risley Moss was formed as part of the amenities of the growing new town. Many cities have their guided walks programmes, often aimed at a local audience. In Bath the Countess of Huntingdon Centre is an important educational facility for local study of the city’s architecture and history. In Barnsley, the Community Action in the Rural Environment (or CARE) project stimulates both discovery and action in the countryside around the town.

These projects are usually part of action programmes and, as such, their organizers use a wide range of media to reach their audiences, especially the mass media and education. Communications strategies are planned which may cover schools, newspapers, radio, television, street theatre, mail shots, exhibitions and public forums. To realize their full potential they are therefore adding the mass media and education to what we might regard as traditional interpretation. Several pioneering schemes ae under way which are doing so for purposes of economic and urban renewal.

The Calderdale Inheritance Project provides a good example. Faced with the decline of traditional industries — textiles, carpet making, engineering and confectionery - the district has embarked on a ten-year programme to reverse the downward turn. Initiatives have included the rehabilitation of historic mill buildings for new industry and small businesses, the restoration of the Rochdale Canal for recreation and tourism, and the upgrading of fine Victorian shopping streets to encourage retail activity. ‘Business in the Community’, a national body representing blue-chip companies anxious to help revive declining economies, has been involved. Tourism has been developed as a means of economic growth and as a way of changing the area’s image and self-image.

Leading up to the project was the re-opening in 1976 of the Halifax Piece Hall, which led not only to a reassessment of the local built environment, but to new interpretive facilities and attractions. Over the next decade, slowly at first but then accelerating, a new industrial museum, an art gallery, a countryside centre, a car museum, a few dozen guidebooks, a tourist guide service, and a countryside ranger service were added by various organizations to the local stock, which had consisted mainly of a fine folk museum and some small collections. Two factories opened their doors to visitors and began to adapt their marketing — one selling wood-and-leather clogs, the other sweets. Canal boat trips appeared on the restored Rochdale Canal, and work began on a major countryside centre at Ogden Reservoir.

Many environmental improvement projects are central to the programme, re-using old mills, restoring the Rochdale Canal and making town centres more attractive. Recently, moves have begun to broaden out the scope to work on run-down areas of housing. Much of this work followed principles suggested in a report prepared for the national Civic Trust, which encouraged the Calderdale enterprise. Michael Quinion Associates produced Caring for the Visitor: An Interpretive Strategy for Calderdale in November 1985.

Three major public relations exercises are under way through the ‘Inheritance Project’, with the historic importance of Calderdale in mind. Number one, called ‘The Constant Stream’, is being built up through a series of media starting with a leaflet and an audio cassette. It describes the constant efforts of local people to improve the quality of life in times of change, principally those of the industrial revolution and its aftermath. Another exercise sets out to join with several other historic areas of England in a special campaign to stress their historic importance. For Calderdale this will help place the district in the context of better known historic towns.

The third exercise aimed to take advantage of the broad interest in heritage matters. From 24—27 October 1988 a Council of Europe Conference looked at ‘Heritage for Successful Town Regeneration’ when it met in Calderdale. Supporting and fringe events created a kind of heritage festival, which may be repeated in future years. The Civic Trust Education Group organized a meeting on ‘Education and Regeneration’. Other meetings were aimed at local people; one examined the economic future of the area, another consisted of a showing of archive films. A speaker from Cracow in Poland described the long history of conservation work there. A one-day school assessed the impact of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a book which was partially written drawing on the wealth of archive material in and about Calderdale. There was also a heritage exhibition looking at urban renewal, tourism and educational work. Finally, a one-off publication, the Calderdale Heritage Review, looked at a range of schemes in northern England which relate to discovery, understanding, decision-making and action for improvement: the elements of the ‘social helix’ described in this paper.

The importance of all this lies in the fact that the audience for Calderdale promotion is not only that of tourists but, more importantly, local people. Other target audiences are opinion makers and potential investors, to whom the message is one of an attractive place with a store of good people and a distinctive quality of life. Deep inside the story is the heart of the matter: summed up in the ‘Constant Stream’ label applied both to the River Calder which carved the valley scenery, and to the unbroken tradition of enterprise which is restoring Calderdale prosperity. Heritage to these people has something to do with the past, but much more to do with the future. The blunt Yorkshire character is very down-to-earth and impatient with nostalgia. A marketing journal recently described Calderdale as: ‘Regarded by professionals as one of the best attempts in the country to put the clock back’ (Brown, 1986). Coverage in a national journal is praise indeed, but such an unfortunate piece of phraseology turns it into highly damaging imagery. In Calderdale, heritage as nostalgia is rejected: the legacy for the next generation is what matters.

With economic renewal and the creation of a positive image as key elements, the Calderdale Project can also act as an exemplar to overcome a major problem of the UK — the gap between the prosperous south and the declining north. Both the mass media and education tend to highlight negative images in order to illustrate differences in character. The communication strategy behind the Calderdale Project tries to replace negative images by positive ones. It is then used as a dynamic way of creating changes in attitudes and the environment. Heritage is a resource. While this is also the case in other places, the particular mix of problems, attitudes, resources and solutions occurring in Calderdale must be unique. The landscape, along with the archives and artefacts of the area, contains an unparalleled record of the effects of social change on communities. The district is large enough to show complex problems, but these difficulties are not of a scale to attract major grant aid. Consequently a network of small-to medium-scale initiatives has appeared, which has generated its own form of vitality within the community at large.

The Wider Applications

The lessons learnt in this kind of scheme can be applied on a global scale to the problems of underdeveloped countries, changing traditional opinions which were often formed in a colonial cultural ethos. With the advantage of tourism as ‘seeing for yourself’, and visitor interpretation providing the means to put across the message, new roles emerge for these activities. A newly independent African country, for example, could use its scenery and wildlife to attract visitors, while making available forms of historic interpretation which would avoid being propaganda but would be scripted from a local perspective. Britain has, after all, being doing that for years, and has built a massive tourism programme on it.

Interpreters will therefore need to see their role in a new context, alongside the mass media and education, influencing popular culture. The north of England gives us another good example. For a quarter of a century British attitudes to the north have been influenced by the Coronation Street image. In June 1988, Granada Television opened its doors to tourists in order for them to see how television works. People can now visit the famous ‘Street’ in its TV home. They can also find out if the north and its people are really like the media image. It is also arguable that conservationists will not win their cause unless they come to grips with an understanding of how popular images and values are formed, such as by television, and this kind of exhibition helps that.

The challenge to interpretation in the 1990s is to recognize better how it can play a part in our everyday lives as a way of solving problems, rather than being wasted as entertainment helping to escape them.


Beddis, R.A. (1986) GCSE Environment Syllabus, Southampton, Southern Regional Examination Board
Brown, A. (1986) Selling Heritage in Marketing 29: 23 June
Dance, F.E.X. (1967) A Helical Model of Communication, in Human Communication Theory, New York.
Machin, A. (1986) Changing the Viewpoint, Heritage Interpretation, 34 (Winter), 4—5.
Machin, A. (ed.) (1988) The Calderdale Heritage Review, Halifax, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council
Michael Quinion Associates (1985) Caring for the Visitor: An Interpretive Strategy for Calderdale, London, Civic Trust
Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974) The spiral of Silence: a Theory of Public Opinion, Journal of Communication, 24: 43—51.
Noelle-Neumann, E. (1980) Mass Media and Social Change in Developed Societies, in Wilhoit, G.C. and de Bock, H. (eds) Mass Communication Review Yearbook 1980, pp. 657—78, Beverley Hills, Sage Publications

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