Humans of TCGMC: Bret Pearson
Josh: TODAY, I HAVE THE PLEASURE OF BEING JOINED BY BRET PEARSON, WHO ALSO ENJOYS FINDING HUMAN STORIES. I’M SO EXCITED TO KNOW MORE! NOW PLEASE, TELL ME ABOUT THE WORK YOU DO.
Bret: (Stonefaced) For the last 10 years, I’ve been in a cellar. I sit alone, looking at a computer and books, and never talk to anyone. Making small talk, or even speaking in sentences that make sense, can be challenging. I’m a writer, not a speaker. So, thought I’d get that out of the way…
Josh: CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! HOW HAVE YOU SPENT THOSE 10 YEARS IN THE BASEMENT? ARE YOU PROFESSIONALLY A WRITER?
Bret: Researcher and writer. My company, Museology, started about 9 years ago. We work with historical societies all over Minnesota, as a sort of backup department for their different needs: collections management, or research and writing, or exhibits. My focus and passion is mostly exhibits, and it’s what I do the deep research and writing for.
I really love when I can find something that other people have missed.
Josh: HOW DOES ONE EVEN END UP WORKING IN MUSEOLOGY?
Bret: I was very, very lucky. My life partner – and also my business partner – Lars has been in the field for years. When we started dating, I was fascinated with his work, and I wanted to see his museum at the Carver County Historical Society. His experience had been that much of the time, if you tell people that you work with history, their eyes glaze over. My reaction was to start volunteering there! His workplace at the time was not a very healthy place, though, and eventually he had to leave. And we said “This is what we love. Why don’t we do it?” Amazing response! People hired us, and we’ve been running since.
Josh: WHAT DOES A TYPICAL PROJECT LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
Bret: Let’s say that “Loon” County tells us that they want a new World War I exhibit. We’ll meet with the Executive Director and a small committee and see what perspective/focus they’re interested in. Then I just jump in. I build a base of knowledge, memorizing the county map and the towns and waterways in it. I read newspapers and books, and I go through the museum’s photos. I start piecing it all together and giving it dimension, honing it into an engaging story that’s based in fact.
Often I build genealogies and look for insights. For example, early in the history of Minnesota Territory, a Métis guide rode on horseback from Fort Snelling to the far northwest corner of the state, an unusual mode of travel in this period. His white contemporaries thought he was a little strange for doing so. When I plugged the dates into the genealogy, there was a clear reason for him behaving oddly: his firstborn child had been born while he was away from home. I’d travel fast, too!
Sometimes we get these inherited stories that are not based in fact. They can be tricky. If you’re going to disturb one of those stories, you have to make it better than the inherited story. You have to take it apart and see which things are true, and put them back together in this way, and throw this photograph in, and then sell it in the writing. People are generally willing to let go of the old, inaccurate story when presented with a clarification, rather than a rejection.
Josh: LIKE A JOURNALIST, YOU HAVE THE POWER TO SHAPE A NARRATIVE WITH YOUR OWN BIASES. HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THE FACTS WITH THE CREATION OF A STORY? WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE?
Bret: In the end, your work will reflect some of your biases. Writing has made me aware of many of mine, so I watch out for those. I know there are more. You can definitely write from lots of viewpoints. Sometimes the client has a goal for the writing. Some of what we create is the “Town Myth” or the “County Myth.” We’re fine with nostalgia and boosterism as long as it’s factually true.
We do have the bias of wanting accurate representation of all the groups present in the story. The mother of one of our research subjects, for example, had two names in the records. One was Margaret. The other was Zoongab Addik, and meant “Blue Sky Woman.” So we took the information to an Ojibwe language teacher, and he told us “That doesn’t mean Blue Sky Woman! It means ‘She Sits in Strength.” It’s the female equivalent of Sitting Bull – the one who, when her buffalo herd is being attacked, turns around and stares down the attackers, and will not be moved. That tells a much more interesting story, and they named her that for a reason. To restore her name was so moving to us.
Josh: YOU MENTIONED MINORITY GROUPS BEING A TOPIC OF INTEREST. ARE THERE OTHER AREAS OF SPECIALIZATION FOR YOU?
Bret: I’ll work with any time period, but I love the 1800s until World War II. After WWII, I think, “I know that stuff.” Sometimes there are topics I’m not that keen on when I start, but fall in love with once I’m neck-deep in the research.
Josh: HOW DO YOU KEEP TRACK OF THAT INFORMATION?
Bret: Most of it’s on the computer. It’s hard to remember where I’ve got all the things, though. Because I think, “Right, there’s that one picture,” and then I have to look through a bazillion pictures to find that one.
Stories can be constructed by seeing where people were born, where they were married, or when the priests did entries. I also get a lot of organized photos from the county historical society. I’m in Lake of the Woods County right now, and in the early 1900s they had three professional photographers. With that number of great images, there’s a lot of potential to illustrate the work.
It’s about building a fuller story – that it’s not all about white men working alone in the world to change things. That they weren’t always the movers and the shakers; that they had wives and daughters. Finding those stories…
JOSH: CAN POKE HOLES IN THE NARRATIVES. BUT YOU LIKE THAT, DON’T YOU?
Bret: Oh, I love it!
Josh: DID YOU EVER STUDY HISTORY ACADEMICALLY?
Bret: I actually studied Spanish and Middle Eastern Studies.
At this point, Josh and Bret discussed La Alhambra in Spain, then took turns sharing common Spanish words of Arabic origin. Josh assures us it was “nerdtastic.”
Josh: OH, YOU’RE SO FUN! WE COULD TALK FOREVER! BUT I DO WANT TO BE SURE TO ASK YOU HOW THIS WORK AFFECTS YOU PERSONALLY.
Bret: I rarely do anything social. I don’t get to see my family enough because we’re working all the time. I don’t speak easily. Sometimes I have a really hard time pulling my mind into the 21st century. So those are the downsides. But I love the exploration. I do the writing. It’s not a job that ever ends – there’s always a bit more you could research. It only ends when it goes up on the wall.
Josh: THOSE ARE COSTLY SACRIFICES. BUT YOU KNOW, I STILL LOOK AT YOU AND SEE SPARKLES IN YOUR EYES WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT THIS. WHAT ARE THE MOST REWARDING MOMENTS?
Bret: We created an exhibit for a town centennial. There was a really grumpy member of the board who hated everything, and we decided to research his business, a saw mill, which was also century-old. He looked at our work and said, “Oh, that’s nice.” Then he turned to the next panel and said “That’s my grandpa!” And he started telling all these stories about the fire truck and his grandfather and he became this little kid again. That’s what I want – for people to have a heart-to-heart connection. It doesn’t get any better.