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CNE Archives Project: The Cutting Edge of Fair History Preservation
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The city of Toronto cancelled all major events for 2021, forcing the closing of the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) , one of the largest and oldest fairs in North America, for the second straight year.. The pandemic may have disrupted the present, but the CNE is leading the way in the preservation, restoration and presentation of its illustrious past.

The organization has been archiving for decades, and in 2015 The CNE Heritage Site (www.cneheritage.com) was launched to serve as an online portal to the history of this outdoor event, a Toronto tradition since 1879.

According to the website, the organization only got serious about communicating its colorful history to the general public when the fairground was “threatened by a major development plan to build a mammoth MGM Casino Entertainment Complex on the grounds. Working with the neighboring community and with the help of our CNEA Membership and Business Partners, we were part of a larger movement that successfully stopped the proposed development.  What became clear to the CNE at that time is that we needed to do a better job of showcasing our history and re-enforcing our long-standing relationship with our site.”

Archive Digitization

This summer, the preservation of CNE history reached out to the community once again. With the support of a Canada Summer Jobs programs – The CNE Foundation, launched the CNE Archives Project, a two-year, $100,000 campaign to digitize more than 64,000 photo negatives in the CNE portion of the Alexandra Studio collection, spanning the years 1947 to 1983. The CNE Foundation also launched a GoFundMe to bolster financial support for the project.

With funding received through the federal Canada Summer Jobs program and financial donations, the CNE Foundation began the digitization work this summer. “Canada Summer Jobs connects young people with organizations doing great work in the riding,” said Adam Vaughan, Member of Parliament,  Spadina-Fort York.  “As the CNE comes through COVID-19, I'm very proud to help them secure jobs funding for young people.” 

“We are grateful to have received the Canada Summer Jobs funding from the Government of Canada, as well as financial gifts from individual donors that have enabled us to begin the important work of saving this piece of Canadian history,” said Suzan Hall, CNE Foundation chairman. Support through our GoFundMe fundraiser will allow us to continue this work to digitize and preserve as many images from the collection as possible.” 

The initial support enabled two archive digitization interns – hired through the Canada Summer Jobs program – who began the massive but meticulous undertaking of scanning the delicate cellulose acetate photo negatives. The materials are afflicted by Vinegar Syndrome, causing them to crack and the images to dissolve, making the project a race against time to save the rapidly deteriorating negatives.


Finding Funding

“This is the first historical project of the CNE Foundation, which it hopes to build on,” said Joanne Benerowski Director of the CNE Foundation. “Future phases of this project will aim to produce exhibits, both at the CNE and in the community, to share the historical images with the public.”

The cancellation of the fair has caused funding complications. “The CNE Foundation set out to raise half of the overall project cost in 2021, or approximately $57,000,” said Benerowski. “Unfortunately, the cancellation of the 2021 in-person CNE event in May, due to the pandemic, has affected the CNE Foundation's planned fundraising activities in the first year of the campaign. The CNE Foundation was able to begin the digitization work this summer. The CNE Foundation is asking for public support, through its GoFundMe campaign, to raise the shortfall of $45,000 of the 2021 goal of $57,000, resulting from its cancelled fundraising initiatives.”

She added, “The biggest challenge in organizing and presenting the vast history of the CNE is in securing funding to complete the digitization and preservation work. This includes wages for trained digitization staff and costs related to specialty archival supplies and equipment.”

At stake for the CNE are these priceless documents of mid-20th century Canadian life and history. Founded in 1911, Alexandra Studio was a leading Canadian photography studio whose works can be found in the Toronto City Archives, as well as national archives and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. The CNE portion of the Alexandra Studio collection was donated to the CNE Association in 1996, along with copyright ownership of all images.


Expanding Archive

“The Alexandra Studio collection contains material that spans almost every event, program, ride, game, sporting event, competition, building, etc., at the CNE from 1947 to 1983,” she said. “The material on the CNE Heritage website extends beyond the Alexandra Studio collection. In total, the CNE Heritage site showcases elements from approximately five or six different collections, including Alexandra.  The digitization work on the Alexandra Studio collection will not change the amount held in the CNE's physical archives. However, the digital collection will increase by roughly 60,000+ images.”

According to Benerowski, “all these images will eventually be uploaded to the CNE archives online searchable database, which members of the public are able to use. Currently, the online database includes images from approximately 1879 to 1975.”

Some of the Alexandra Studio collection images include some of the first Blue Jays games that were played in the old Grandstand in 1977; Bob Hope and Pierre Trudeau opening the CNE; buildings on the CNE grounds that no longer exist, such as the CNE Art Gallery and the paintings and works of art that were displayed in it and grandstand acts that include the Jackson Five and Anne Murray. 

“The CNE Foundation has seen a positive response to the CNE Archives Project,” she said. “The story of the CNE Foundation's mission to save precious CNE memories has appeared on major media outlets. The level of engagement from the public on social media has been fantastic and touching. From a quantitative standpoint, the CNE Archives Project social media posts receive hundreds of interactions and views. Perhaps more touching, however, is the fact that members of the public have shared their personal memories and stories of their experiences at the CNE, in many cases dating back decades, with some sharing their personal photos. In these early days of the campaign, the Foundation has received donations of all sizes in response to the initiative, both through its GoFundMe fundraiser and through the online donation form at cnefoundation.com.”


Canadian Trend

The CNE's historical commitment may be gaining public attention, but preservation of a fair's history – from photography to all forms of memorabilia – is a welcomed trend embraced by many Canadian Fairs. The Spring 2021 issue of Canadian Fair News, the official publication of the Canadian Association of Fairs & Exhibitions featured “Building And Using An Archival Collection by Alicia Cherayil, who holds a Master of Museum Studies from the University of Toronto, with more than 12 years of professional experience in collections, archives and program management. 

“We as event folk often look forward and strive to bring the latest and greatest to our community but are fundamentally steeped in history and tradition,” she writes. “That has value. How we use that to best advocate for our events is something we all need to be working on. Utilizing a historical collection to help share your story is a great way to connect with your community.”

“Knowing the history of your fair is knowing the history of your community,” said Christina Franc, Executive Director, CAFE. “We are seeing fairs exhibiting their history, but it is very difficult to preserve. We published the article in our magazine because it hopefully it is a place to start for fairs to utilize their collections better, or to formalize their collections.”

Fairs represent popular history and culture, a receptacle of decades of Canadiana. “Fairs are packrats, there's so much material that is very valuable. I've noticed more of it recently with the rise of digitization and social media – Throw Back Thursdays. It's really engaging community.

People are digging into the archives and communities are responding.  More fairs are formalizing their archives, and integrating the history (of the) fair within the community. It's a little bit of an untapped resource. We have a lot of old fairs in Canada, they are coming up to milestones.

There's a feeling that let us document this history properly so we can have it and use it.”
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