“Without the death of Leland Stanford Jr., you don’t have the museum and you don’t have Stanford University.”

—Mark Dion

2019-20 Diekman Contemporary Commissions Program Artist

When Jane and Leland Stanford experienced the immense pain of losing their only son, Leland Jr., just before his 16th birthday, they were compelled to enshrine his memory in a meaningful way. The resulting museum and university they founded not only secured young Leland’s place in history – artist Mark Dion argues that this particular death changed the world. Dion’s exhibition, The Melancholy Museum: Love, Death, and Mourning at Stanford, opens at the Cantor Arts Center Sept. 18.

“Without the death of Leland Stanford Jr., you don’t have the museum and you don’t have Stanford University,” Dion explained. “Without Stanford University, you probably don’t have the Silicon Valley. Without the Silicon Valley, there are a number of things that we certainly don’t have in the way that they look today, including personal computers, and phones and the internet. So, the death of a child set off a chain reaction that dramatically shaped the course of the information future of the world.”

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Video by Farrin Abbott

Hear about the exhibition directly from the artist.

Artist Mark Dion
(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The exhibition, which involves reinstalling objects in the Stanford Family Galleries in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the museum, includes over 700 objects collected by Leland Stanford Jr. and his parents. These items tell the story of the culture of grief that was very much a part of the Gilded Age that the Stanford family inhabited. The death masks of all three family members are on display, as is a portrait of young Leland, framed by fabric drapes, evoking the mourning customs of the period.

“Mark Dion’s unique ability to tell the story of the Stanford family through his innovative presentation of hundreds of individual objects will allow visitors a more in-depth look at the things that interested young Leland Jr.,” said Susan Dackerman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director at the Cantor. “It also provides a deeper look at a range of late 19th-century perspectives, from the immense grief his parents experienced upon his death to the history of the Ohlone people, the original inhabitants of the Stanford lands, to the contributions of the thousands of immigrant laborers who worked for the Stanford family.”


At Stanford University’s 2019 Commencement ceremony, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne remarked on visiting the Cantor and reading the young Leland Jr.’s journals: “What truly leaps from the pages is Leland Junior’s extraordinary curiosity.”

Photo of Leland Stanford Jr.

Photo of Leland Stanford Jr. (Image credit: University Archives and Special Collections)


It is this broad curiosity that is highlighted in the Cantor’s new exhibition, with numerous examples of things that fascinated the 19th-century child, like a toy cannon and a coin trapped in lava. Although these vernacular objects are not things one might normally expect to see in an art museum, these objects were chosen by Dion to help tell the Stanford story.

“I see the museum as a space where one obtains knowledge through an encounter with things,” the artist explained. “I think of the museum as the place that generates wonder, which leads to curiosity, that results in knowledge. The best museums start a chain reaction in visitors, but the catalyst for this reaction is the object or collection itself.”

To give Cantor visitors that transformative experience with objects, Dion created an interactive Victorian mourning cabinet to display myriad items from the family, including beautiful ones like a jade bird and a beaded necklace; unusual items, like cannonballs and a piece of the Roman Colosseum; as well as items that reflect the young Leland’s interests such as toys, antiquities and natural history specimens. The display is organized according to the five classical elements: air, earth, ether, fire and water, which were used by the artist as a way to place disparate elements into cohesive groupings and to reflect ancient times when the elements provided a way to create order in an often-unpredictable world.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to open over 50 drawers that are included in the display cases and in the mourning cabinet, a creation of Dion’s that is reflective of the curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance era, where collections were often displayed.

Interactive Victorian mourning cabinet created for the exhibition. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Expanding narratives

While the original Stanford Family Galleries focused almost exclusively on the story of the Stanfords themselves, Dion has broadened the narrative in this exhibition using archival documents and found memorabilia from the laborers who built the railroads – some of whom later labored on the Stanford family’s many estates and helped them amass their wealth. Leland Stanford Sr. was president of the Central Pacific Railroad, which employed many Chinese laborers who worked in perilous conditions to construct a railroad through the difficult terrain of the Western United States. The Last Spike, used by Stanford Sr. at Promontory Summit, Utah, to connect the two halves of the intercontinental railroad 150 years ago, is part of the exhibition.

The Last Rail Is Laid Scene At Promontory Point)

Alfred A. Hart (U.S.A., 1816-1908), The Last Rail is Laid scene at Promontory Point, May 10, 1869. Photograph. (Image credit: Department of Special Collections, Stanford Libraries)

Check Receipt)

Artist unknown, Check Receipt, 1901. (Image credit: Department of Special Collections, Stanford Libraries)


Also on view are objects from the native Ohlone people on whose ancestral land the university now stands. An essay in the Field Guide that accompanies the exhibition explains the deep connection between the university, the museum and the Ohlone people. In 1988, Stanford repatriated human remains and funerary objects that had been stored in the basement of the museum to the Ohlone for reburial. The university and tribe now cooperate in many ways including community-led archeology, historic interpretation and a native plant garden.

Other areas explored in the new exhibition include the two earthquakes in 1906 and 1989 that destroyed large parts of the historic museum; the afterlife; and photography, a passion of young Leland Jr.’s.

Student involvement

Throughout his more than a year on campus, reviewing over 6,000 items in the Stanford Family Collections, Dion has had the opportunity to work with students to explain his practice and provide insights into his process. Student guides, undergraduate and graduate students who receive a year of training and then lead tours at both the Cantor and Anderson Collection at Stanford, had the opportunity to learn from Dion as did students in the course Wonder, Curiosity & Collecting: Building a Stanford Cabinet of Curiosities taught by Dackerman and Paula Findlen, professor of early modern Europe and the history of science in Stanford’s Department of History. The undergraduate and graduate students in the winter quarter course had the opportunity to examine objects with Dion and to contribute essays about select objects to the Field Guide that accompanies the exhibition. Another key student contributor to the project was Anna Toledano, a PhD candidate in the History of Science, who authored the Field Guide chapter about the earthquakes that struck the museum.

Student Ben Maldonado with his poster

Ben Maldonado, ’20, one of three undergraduate students to participate in the Stanford Family Interpretive Project. (Image credit: George Philip LeBourdais)

In conjunction with the Melancholy Museum exhibition, George Philip LeBourdais, who received his PhD in 2018 from Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History, worked with three undergraduate students in the Stanford Family Interpretive Project to create interactive media projects that reveal hidden stories and forgotten peoples through close examinations of artifacts in the Stanford Family Collections. These include 19th-century watercolor paintings of the California missions by Henry Chapman Ford, Asian antiquities and Native American objects.

In collaboration with the Cantor staff and under the direction of staff and faculty at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, the students produced “story maps,” interpretive historical essays woven together with images and interactive maps, in order to trace the complex histories of objects and the people that made them.

California Missions

Ben Maldonado, ’20

Maldonado’s project focuses on artist Henry Chapman Ford’s watercolor depictions of the Spanish missions that were established in California.

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Collecting Asia

Cathy Yang, ’20

Yang’s project focuses on the over 300 Asian artworks – including bronzes, jade and ivory pendants and ink paintings – in the Stanford family’s collection.

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Untold Narratives

Roshii Montano, ’20

Montano’s project focuses on the Stanford family’s collection of Native American objects, much of which was amassed in the 1880s and 1890s.

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Artist Mark Dion examines one of the completed displays in the Stanford Family Gallery.
(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)


Dion, whose work examines how dominant ideologies and public institutions shape our understanding of history, knowledge and the natural world, is known for atypical orderings of objects and specimens. He appropriates archaeological, field ecology and other scientific methods of collecting, ordering and exhibiting objects to create works that question the distinctions between “objective” scientific methods and “subjective” influences.

Lead preparator Brooks Manbeck, left, works with artist Mark Dion as they install the objects in the Stanford Family Gallery. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

This year’s Diekman Contemporary Commissions Program artist at the Cantor, Dion was recently named a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellow for 2019. The Diekman Contemporary Commissions Program was created in honor of Mona Duggan and her dedication to the arts at Stanford.

On Oct. 29, Dion will give the 2019 Bobbie and Mike Wilsey Distinguished Lecture on campus. Dion has often worked with university collections to create installations. In this talk, Dion will situate his Stanford installation in the context of his other projects in his over three decades as an artist.