Ethical nature

Sharon Heal, 23.06.2015
How apes can help us think about ethics
I’m guessing it’s not often that lyrics from the US rap group Bloodhound Gang are quoted at a gathering of museum professionals, but when you’re the last speaker at the end of an intense two day conference for natural scientists you need to pull something out of the bag to ensure that the audience are still listening.

In fact the quick clip that I played at the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSca) conference last week - including the immortal lyrics: “You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel” - wasn’t entirely gratuitous.

I was reminded of the song after reading The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans De Waal. The US-based author and scientist makes a well-argued case for looking to primate society for the origins of ethical and moral behaviour. The intriguing and often funny book explores our close link to apes, which he demonstrates extends beyond the biological to the behavioural.

The book made me think about how great interpretation - and storytelling - can make quite complex scientific and philosophical ideas understandable. And how museums are well-placed to do that.

It is also very pertinent to the current review of the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics. Like the book, the review has made me think about how far our personal and professional ethics extend and what can and can’t be codified.

Obviously our personal ethics will differ from individual to individual but there are some things we hold in common professionally that can guide how we act and behave. The consultation on the review of the code has so far been productive, engaging and stimulating.

It has been conducted in the spirit of collaboration and openness and I think this will bear fruit in the eventual outcome in terms of the values it embodies and sector and public buy-in.

The values emerging from the consultation are about public access and engagement, stewardship, and integrity and trustworthiness.

I hope these principles will form the foundation of the code and I hope we can share them with the public so that they know what they can expect from us.

Follow Sharon Heal on Twitter @SharonHeal


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Luanne Meehitiya
MA Member
Natural Sciences Curator, Birmingham Museums Trust
01.07.2015, 16:17
Hi Sharon, as I mentioned to you on Twitter, the conference that you spoke at was organised by the Manchester Museum and not NATSCA. The reason that I bring it up again is so that the right organisation is credited for putting together an excellent conference (I for one was wide awake at the beginning of your presentation).
Sharon Heal
MA Member
Director, Museums Association
01.07.2015, 16:48
Hi Luanne, sorry - I conflated the two things in my head and then couldn't disassociate them; all credit to Manchester Museum for organising what was a very stimulating and enjoyable event. S