University of Leicester
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Science centres and legitimacy

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posted on 2014-12-15, 10:45 authored by Richard John. Toon
This thesis is a theoretically informed critical examination of the dual-legitimating role of science centres in contemporary North America through a case study of the Arizona Science Center (ASC), Phoenix, Arizona. By dual-legitimacy is meant the process by which an institution legitimates both the messages it delivers and its own authority to do so. The science centre is first distinguished from laboratory science practice, its non- science educational role emphasised, and its social role contrasted with that of the public understanding of science movement. The basic concept of legitimacy as an organising principle is argued for based on the thought of Ernest Gellner. The methodological issues of a single case study are considered in terms of generalisation and objectivity. An approach is advocated that is both multi-methodic and reflexive. A history of the science centre movement is provided that sees the science centre as a distinctive museum type, developing from a broad range of influences over the last three hundred years. The emergence of science centres in the late 1960s is related to social and political issues of the Cold War and an examination is given of the social significance of interactivity. This story provides the context for the development of ASC in the 1980s. This leads to the opening of a new science centre in Phoenix in 1997 and the meaning of its new building and the destination experience it offers are considered in terms of local legitimation among a variety of other institutions. An overview of the national science centre movement is provided and ASC is taken as a typical centre. The way ASC legitimates itself to potential visitors is examined in terms of the characteristics of its visitors and the messages it places in the media to attract them. A detailed examination is provided of the nature and meaning of ASC's offerings in art, exhibits, planetarium shows, giant-screen films, and demonstrations. It is argued that ASC offers different models of science and that much of its message is carried through being embodied by its visitors rather than cognitively understood by them. The result is that the science centre experience is a mixture of many elements with many aims, even though it carries what appears to be an ahistorical, asocial, apolitical message about science. An examination of some of the resulting tensions is given together with consideration of whether the embodied science of science centres ultimately achieves its goals.


Date of award


Author affiliation

Museum Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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