Candlelight Vigil at Forest Hill Public School

Toronto school poster Poem written by fifth grade students at Forest Hill Public School. The first letter of the first word of each paragraph, when put together, spells “ARTIFACTS.

A presentation related to the Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum was given to grade five students from Forest Hill Public School in Toronto, Ontario. An educational presentation that incorporated information about the vigil and the World’s Ancient Cultures in Danger Map, inspired these future protectors of our cultural heritage to write a poem after being moved by the event. Leah Bevington, from SAFE, wrote this description of how the vigil impacted the students:

In April 2007, I was helping to coordinate the SAFE Candlelight vigils to commemorate the looting of the Iraq Museum. When the invitation to participate in the vigils went out, one mother saw the video through a message on the Museum Securities list serve and showed it to her 10-year-old son, who was studying Mesopotamia in the Ancient Civilizations syllabus in his grade 5 class. He was aghast, she would write, unable to comprehend why someone would do that, and shocked that it could be happening now.

The mother wrote to Cindy Ho, SAFE’s president, to tell her of the video’’s impact and to see about organizing a vigil at her son’’s school. Cindy forwarded the email to me. The mother, the grade five teacher, and I subsequently organized a vigil and educational program that fit in with their study of antiquity.

I arrived on a rainy morning to a busy elementary school in midtown Toronto. Mrs. G., the teacher, wasn’t in her classroom, and the kids flocked around me, obviously prepared for an in-class visitor, asking me questions and telling me what area of the ancient world they were studying. Mrs. G arrived, quieted the children, got them into their seats, and had me introduce myself.

I told the kids who I was, why I volunteered with SAFE, and how the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad had affected me and made me think differently about ancient artifacts. I talked about the tragedy of the museum and the ongoing tragedy of the looting, describing the importance of context and knowledge lost. I tried to explain how looting and the black market affected the children’s study of ancient civilizations.

As I passed around two SAFE booklets, I opened up the floor to questions. The questions the kids asked were bright, precocious, hard-hitting and perceptive. Some of my favorites: If they know there is a black market, why don’t they (or SAFE) stop it? Who buys a stolen object? Aren’t they ashamed? They were especially attuned to the moral aspects of the problems surrounding looting and the concept of the black market.

I popped in the SAFE Vigil video with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, which the kids watched in silence. I then showed them a few photos from the excavation I took part in in Italy to show them what a real, scientific excavation should look like. We finished with an image of the World’s Ancient Cultures in Danger Map, and the kids pointed out the areas they were studying and who had lived there, and discussed how the archaeological heritage of each of these areas was in danger.

Mrs. G came forward and discussed the concept of a vigil, like the moment of silence and reflection on Remembrance Day. She instructed the kids to think about what the loss of cultural heritage meant to them. I lit a candle and the class had a moment of silent introspection. Mrs. G went around the class, asking what they had thought about and then had the students write their ideas down on a sheet at the front of the class. When the sheet was nearly full, the bell rang for recess and the children dispersed. They said thank you, and I gave the boy who had initiated the vigil SAFE buttons to hand out to his classmates.

Overall, the children were incredibly receptive and intrigued by the concepts of looting, black market, and illegal excavations. Relating the issues back to the subjects they were studying and their visits to the Royal Ontario Museum, they were able to grasp these broad and difficult concepts remarkably well and ask difficult to answer but hard-hitting and relevant, valid questions. The thing that caught me most about the experience was how black and white the children saw the issues. One girl said, “It’s a kindergarten rule that it’s wrong to steal, so I don’t understand why they’re stealing things.”