The compelling origin story of the Stanford museum, university and Silicon Valley

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

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

The Melancholy Museum: Love, Death, and Mourning at Stanford highlights the impact of the death of Leland Stanford Jr.



"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."

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."

Curiosity

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."

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.

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)

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.

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.

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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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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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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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.

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.

Cantor Arts Center, Stanford Family Collections

"Around 1880, Leland Stanford Jr. acquired a device of technological wonder to record his travels and other interests. The Stanford family had for years been acquainted with Eadweard Muybridge, who is well known for his 1877-78 experimental images of the Stanford horses in motion. The famed photographer’s presence at the Stock Farm and Nob Hill mansion no doubt inspired young Leland’s interest in the relatively new medium. The boy’s own camera was a cutting-edge marvel composed of a wooden frame and accordion body that allowed its user to regulate the distance between the lens and interior glass negative to produce greater clarity and depth of field than earlier models. Leland Jr.’s photographs express the creativity and whimsical qualities typical of a young man exploring the world. Mounted on the lined pages of notebooks, the inexpertly processed photographs depict such subjects as the Nob Hill mansion, architectural elements of a French cathedral, foreigners he encountered while touring Europe and a dog. The front cover of his 1880-81 Cahier de Photographies à Leland Stanford (Book of Photographs by Leland Stanford) is decorated with a charming drawing of a young boy composing a photograph under the camera’s cover."

--Taylor Spann, ’21, and Susan Dackerman, John and Jill Freidenrich Director, Cantor Arts Center

Stanford University Archives

"This d eath  m ask  captures the  visage of Leland Stanford Jr. on March 13, 1884 , upon his passing  at the Hotel Bristol in Florence, Italy. Created just after the 15-year-old boy  succumbed to typhoid fever while traveling with his parents  on their second European trip , it nonetheless seems like a sleeping portrait of a beloved child. The softness of the lips and chalky whiteness of the plaster create an eerie youthfulness that affirms the very idea of the death mask as a memento of mortality. Because the cast of the face is a literal imprint of its model, it captures an uncanny  degree of detail :  delicate wrinkles around the eyes, individual hairs of the brows and lashes, even the slightest protrusion of a forehead vein. This realism is what makes the death mask so haunting, reminding us of the lasting presence of a boy whose life  ended  too soon. "

--Meagan Wu, MA, Art History, ’19

Stanford University Archaeology Collections

"Leland Stanford Jr. was captivated by ancient cultures of Europe and Africa, but he grounded his museum - literally - in the local. A photograph of his nascent collection shows bowl-like mortars and long pestles arranged on a floor. Used to grind everything from spices and nuts to medicines and meat, the mortar and pestle was part of the essential tool kit for many cultures, including the Muwekma Ohlone who originally inhabited the Bay Area and continue to live here today. Jane Stanford took pains to attribute the discovery of these artifacts to her son, writing on a surviving label: "[A]ll these Pestles and Mortars [were] collected by Leland Stanford [Jr. him]self. They were all plowed [an]d dug up on the Palo [Alto] Ranch." From the boy’s tutor, we know the child "would scour the farm" and "spend the day in the fields among the laborers" collecting what ancestral Ohlone women left behind, such as this stone set made between 6000 BCE and 1800 CE. Because stone tools were heavy to carry, they often were cached at seasonal sites to await the community’s return - or, in this case, to be uncovered centuries later by laborers and an acquisitive boy."

--Christina J. Hodge, academic curator and collections manager, Archaeology Center, and
Megan Rhodes Victor, postdoctoral research fellow, Department of Archaeology

Cantor Arts Center, Stanford Family Collections

"Around 1880, Leland Stanford Jr. acquired a device of technological wonder to record his travels and other interests. The Stanford family had for years been acquainted with Eadweard Muybridge, who is well known for his 1877-78 experimental images of the Stanford horses in motion. The famed photographer’s presence at the Stock Farm and Nob Hill mansion no doubt inspired young Leland’s interest in the relatively new medium. The boy’s own camera was a cutting-edge marvel composed of a wooden frame and accordion body that allowed its user to regulate the distance between the lens and interior glass negative to produce greater clarity and depth of field than earlier models. Leland Jr.’s photographs express the creativity and whimsical qualities typical of a young man exploring the world. Mounted on the lined pages of notebooks, the inexpertly processed photographs depict such subjects as the Nob Hill mansion, architectural elements of a French cathedral, foreigners he encountered while touring Europe and a dog. The front cover of his 1880-81 Cahier de Photographies à Leland Stanford (Book of Photographs by Leland Stanford) is decorated with a charming drawing of a young boy composing a photograph under the camera’s cover."

--Taylor Spann, ’21, and Susan Dackerman, John and Jill Freidenrich Director, Cantor Arts Center

Stanford University Archives

"This d eath  m ask  captures the  visage of Leland Stanford Jr. on March 13, 1884 , upon his passing  at the Hotel Bristol in Florence, Italy. Created just after the 15-year-old boy  succumbed to typhoid fever while traveling with his parents  on their second European trip , it nonetheless seems like a sleeping portrait of a beloved child. The softness of the lips and chalky whiteness of the plaster create an eerie youthfulness that affirms the very idea of the death mask as a memento of mortality. Because the cast of the face is a literal imprint of its model, it captures an uncanny  degree of detail :  delicate wrinkles around the eyes, individual hairs of the brows and lashes, even the slightest protrusion of a forehead vein. This realism is what makes the death mask so haunting, reminding us of the lasting presence of a boy whose life  ended  too soon. "

--Meagan Wu, MA, Art History, ’19

Stanford University Archaeology Collections

"Leland Stanford Jr. was captivated by ancient cultures of Europe and Africa, but he grounded his museum - literally - in the local. A photograph of his nascent collection shows bowl-like mortars and long pestles arranged on a floor. Used to grind everything from spices and nuts to medicines and meat, the mortar and pestle was part of the essential tool kit for many cultures, including the Muwekma Ohlone who originally inhabited the Bay Area and continue to live here today. Jane Stanford took pains to attribute the discovery of these artifacts to her son, writing on a surviving label: "[A]ll these Pestles and Mortars [were] collected by Leland Stanford [Jr. him]self. They were all plowed [an]d dug up on the Palo [Alto] Ranch." From the boy’s tutor, we know the child "would scour the farm" and "spend the day in the fields among the laborers" collecting what ancestral Ohlone women left behind, such as this stone set made between 6000 BCE and 1800 CE. Because stone tools were heavy to carry, they often were cached at seasonal sites to await the community’s return - or, in this case, to be uncovered centuries later by laborers and an acquisitive boy."

--Christina J. Hodge, academic curator and collections manager, Archaeology Center, and
Megan Rhodes Victor, postdoctoral research fellow, Department of Archaeology

Cantor Arts Center, Stanford Family Collections

"During Leland Stanford Jr.’s first trip to Europe in 1879-81 he acquired some alabaster fruit, perhaps in Nice. In the 19th century, alabaster - an easy-to-carve, translucent gypsum that absorbs color well - became a preferred medium for reproducing small antiquities and architectural forms. Artisans could readily mimic the dull hue and fuzzy texture of a peach, the brightly dappled skin of citrus or the yellow-red sheen of French apples. Carved bits of wood simulated the stems. It made great Victorian food art, and the markets were flooded with alabaster souvenirs, even though the prestige of the form was waning by the time the Stanfords were traveling. Early visitors to the Nob Hill mansion described the fruit as sitting on a marble platter, possibly arranged with other fake food, in Leland Jr.’s designed display. After his death it became part of the museum’s collection, leading to jokes about why Leland Jr.’s last breakfast was on exhibit."

--Paula Findlen, Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History, and professor of early modern Europe and the history of science, Department of History

Cantor Arts Center, Stanford Family Collection

"A cursive monogrammed S marks the verso of this fan as a Stanford family possession. The twirling, textured black ostrich plumes and incandescent mother-of-pearl ribs suggest a combination of delicacy and strength that well defined Jane Stanford. During her extensive travels, she collected hundreds of fans that accompanied her at social functions and became part of her elaborate wardrobe (but most of the others are missing the Stanford monogram). Such an accessory suggests opulence, excess and decadence and the fan itself something of feminine affectation. In the hands of such a woman, of course, fanning would have been a feigned delicacy that dissimulated her power. While Jane often deferred to her husband publicly, she was the matriarch who, after the death of her son in 1884, took charge of the creation of a museum in Leland Stanford Jr.’s memory. After her husband’s death in 1893, she controlled the university as well."

--Juliana Nalerio, PhD candidate, Modern Thought and Literature

Stanford University Archives

"After Leland Stanford Jr. died in 1884, his mother, Jane Stanford, commissioned photographs of her son’s burgeoning museum, then located on the top floor of their Nob Hill mansion. The images document not only Leland Jr.’s vast collection of arms and armor, stuffed birds, antiquities and other curios, but also his fastidious curatorial decisions. The collection eventually made the journey from San Francisco to Palo Alto to take its rightful place in the Leland Stanford Junior Museum, and the photographs provided a template for the new galleries dedicated to the boy’s museological vision. Much as the Palo Alto Stock Farm was transformed into a site of public education, Leland Jr.’s collection evolved from a private cabinet into a full-fledged public museum. Today, the static photograph serves as a death mask of sorts for this personal collection, an indexical representation of a child’s cabinet of wonders."

--Anna Toledano, PhD candidate, History of Science

Cantor Arts Center, Stanford Family Collections

"During Leland Stanford Jr.’s first trip to Europe in 1879-81 he acquired some alabaster fruit, perhaps in Nice. In the 19th century, alabaster - an easy-to-carve, translucent gypsum that absorbs color well - became a preferred medium for reproducing small antiquities and architectural forms. Artisans could readily mimic the dull hue and fuzzy texture of a peach, the brightly dappled skin of citrus or the yellow-red sheen of French apples. Carved bits of wood simulated the stems. It made great Victorian food art, and the markets were flooded with alabaster souvenirs, even though the prestige of the form was waning by the time the Stanfords were traveling. Early visitors to the Nob Hill mansion described the fruit as sitting on a marble platter, possibly arranged with other fake food, in Leland Jr.’s designed display. After his death it became part of the museum’s collection, leading to jokes about why Leland Jr.’s last breakfast was on exhibit."

--Paula Findlen, Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History, and professor of early modern Europe and the history of science, Department of History

Cantor Arts Center, Stanford Family Collection

"A cursive monogrammed S marks the verso of this fan as a Stanford family possession. The twirling, textured black ostrich plumes and incandescent mother-of-pearl ribs suggest a combination of delicacy and strength that well defined Jane Stanford. During her extensive travels, she collected hundreds of fans that accompanied her at social functions and became part of her elaborate wardrobe (but most of the others are missing the Stanford monogram). Such an accessory suggests opulence, excess and decadence and the fan itself something of feminine affectation. In the hands of such a woman, of course, fanning would have been a feigned delicacy that dissimulated her power. While Jane often deferred to her husband publicly, she was the matriarch who, after the death of her son in 1884, took charge of the creation of a museum in Leland Stanford Jr.’s memory. After her husband’s death in 1893, she controlled the university as well."

--Juliana Nalerio, PhD candidate, Modern Thought and Literature

Stanford University Archives

"After Leland Stanford Jr. died in 1884, his mother, Jane Stanford, commissioned photographs of her son’s burgeoning museum, then located on the top floor of their Nob Hill mansion. The images document not only Leland Jr.’s vast collection of arms and armor, stuffed birds, antiquities and other curios, but also his fastidious curatorial decisions. The collection eventually made the journey from San Francisco to Palo Alto to take its rightful place in the Leland Stanford Junior Museum, and the photographs provided a template for the new galleries dedicated to the boy’s museological vision. Much as the Palo Alto Stock Farm was transformed into a site of public education, Leland Jr.’s collection evolved from a private cabinet into a full-fledged public museum. Today, the static photograph serves as a death mask of sorts for this personal collection, an indexical representation of a child’s cabinet of wonders."

--Anna Toledano, PhD candidate, History of Science

Jane Stanford purchased a series of 24 paintings of the missions in 1894, a year after seeing them on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). This project includes information on the history of the missions themselves, including Maldonado’s look at the devastating effects of the missions on the indigenous peoples of California. The project also examines the role the paintings and the Stanfords, particularly Jane, played in the romanticized image of the missions that proliferated in the later 19th century, despite the fact that many had fallen into disrepair.

Jane Stanford purchased a series of 24 paintings of the missions in 1894, a year after seeing them on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). This project includes information on the history of the missions themselves, including Maldonado’s look at the devastating effects of the missions on the indigenous peoples of California. The project also examines the role the paintings and the Stanfords, particularly Jane, played in the romanticized image of the missions that proliferated in the later 19th century, despite the fact that many had fallen into disrepair.

Jane Stanford was the driving force behind the family’s acquisition of Asian art, the majority of which she purchased in 1904 from the Japanese collector and dealer Seisuke Ikeda. She had seen much of Ikeda’s collection, of primarily Japanese and Chinese objects, in Kyoto, where she traveled in 1902. Yang explores where these objects originated, who made them, and how they came to reside in Palo Alto. She places Jane Stanford’s acquisitions in the context of the broader late 19th-century European and United States fascination with - and exoticization of - East Asian aesthetics. Yang asserts that the ways in which the Stanfords exploited Chinese migrant labor, during the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s and the university in the 1890s, allowed them to accumulate the wealth that made these purchases possible.

Jane Stanford was the driving force behind the family’s acquisition of Asian art, the majority of which she purchased in 1904 from the Japanese collector and dealer Seisuke Ikeda. She had seen much of Ikeda’s collection, of primarily Japanese and Chinese objects, in Kyoto, where she traveled in 1902. Yang explores where these objects originated, who made them, and how they came to reside in Palo Alto. She places Jane Stanford’s acquisitions in the context of the broader late 19th-century European and United States fascination with - and exoticization of - East Asian aesthetics. Yang asserts that the ways in which the Stanfords exploited Chinese migrant labor, during the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s and the university in the 1890s, allowed them to accumulate the wealth that made these purchases possible.

Jane Stanford purchased objects excavated at Cahokia Mounds (in what is now Illinois) at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans in 1884-85. Later, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she acquired Northwest Coast sculptures and Navajo textiles, and, in 1899, she purchased Hoopa, Karuk and Yoruk woven ceremonial caps and baskets that had been collected in Northern California in the mid-19th century. In this project, Montano explores the politics of collecting and display in the late 19th-century United States, and the ways in which indigenous peoples and objects were presented - to largely white audiences - as primitive, uncivilized, commodifiable and rooted in the past. The work and words of contemporary Native artists are included in the project, in part, to counter these myths.

Jane Stanford purchased objects excavated at Cahokia Mounds (in what is now Illinois) at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans in 1884-85. Later, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she acquired Northwest Coast sculptures and Navajo textiles, and, in 1899, she purchased Hoopa, Karuk and Yoruk woven ceremonial caps and baskets that had been collected in Northern California in the mid-19th century. In this project, Montano explores the politics of collecting and display in the late 19th-century United States, and the ways in which indigenous peoples and objects were presented - to largely white audiences - as primitive, uncivilized, commodifiable and rooted in the past. The work and words of contemporary Native artists are included in the project, in part, to counter these myths.


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