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By James Wilson on

‘Above the Noise’: A window between worlds

Volunteer blogger James Wilson explores the stories found in our latest exhibition, Above the Noise, and looks at what they can tell us about Bradford (and beyond).

As the mainstream media imposes narratives of racial tension amid post-industrial decline, Above the Noise charts a city’s efforts to set the record straight. In 15 stories, from documents of the everyday to events of national significance, the exhibition pays homage to the Bradford communities ready to embrace alternative methods of broadcasting to make their voices heard.

Above the Noise, Gallery 1, National Science and Media Museum

With just the smartphone in our pocket, we can broadcast our lives to a global audience at the touch of a button. Through the democratisation of technology, ordinary men and women—once passive subjects of media speculation—are now active participants in forging their legacy. Yet it has not always been so easy for alternative narratives to bypass institutional structures.

Tape recordings made by The Bradford Heritage Recording Unit rekindle Bradford’s industrial heritage as proud workers speak of cleaning wool and spinning velvet. The exhibition invites you to listen as the clack of looms echo through the mills that now stand as a silent testament to a national powerhouse.

Workers in the weaving shed at Lister’s Manningham Mills, 1989
Weaving shed at Lister’s Manningham Mills, 1989. Bradford Heritage Recording Unit. Credit: Tim Smith

To see your own culture reflected in the sights and sounds beamed across the airwaves is something we take for granted. Visitors to Above the Noise will also discover how a Pakistani community came to thrive in a media landscape it was once shut out of. As local hobbyists overcame the challenges of emerging technology to share their musical heritage, stations such as Fast FM propelled the city to the forefront of community broadcasting.

Above the Noise, Gallery 1, National Science and Media Museum
A wall of local radio flyers and images in Above the Noise

The story of immigration, woven into the fabric of the city, is often one of loss, as traditions, family and home comforts are left behind. For many, personal documents of journeys made bridge the gap between old lives and new. For one Jamaican contributor, a collage of Polaroid family photos are the pieces that helped rebuild an identity fractured on arrival in a strange land.

The exhibition rewards giving yourself up to extended periods of listening as you lose yourself in worlds past and present, familiar and unfamiliar, across a spectrum of cultures. It is a rare privilege to hear lovers separated by continents overcoming their distance by confiding their hopes and fears to cassette.

Above the Noise, Gallery 1, National Science and Media Museum
This section of Above the Noise explores how we use family photographs and recordings

The whisper of a mother’s prayer into her newborn’s ear; a minaret loudspeaker echoing childhood resonances; a live stream of the Mecca azan retaining the power to ‘soak into the bones’. These Islamic sound rituals explored by real Bradfordians reveal the emotional connections we hold to the aural landscapes we share.

In Gallery 2, the exhibition goes beyond the everyday, as it recounts a city at breaking point during the Bradford riots. This section highlights the power of radical methods of self-publishing to address the balance of reporting. It shows how community-produced posters, zines and bulletins reshaped the media narrative to influence the fate of the Bradford 12.

Poster marking the acquittal of the Bradford 12, 1982
Poster marking the acquittal of the Bradford 12, 1982

In a city that finds itself scrutinised under the distorting lens of sensationalist headlines, the truths we capture from the inside have the power to tell both sides of the story. Yet the implications of this new democratisation of storytelling are far from black and white. A film on the India-Pakistan border illustrates how easily the line between ‘coming armed with our truths’ and ‘arming our truths’ can be overstepped.

The lives of those we share our city with can all too often remain alien to us. But where many seek to profit from division, Above the Noise offers windows between worlds. The exhibition is a timely reminder that only by understanding where a city has come from can we shed light on where it is going. The documents we make as a community are surely the blueprint for the road ahead.

Above the Noise, Gallery 2, National Science and Media Museum

Above the Noise is open at the National Science and Media Museum until 19 June 2019.

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