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The compellling origin story of the Stanford museum, univesity and Silicon Valley

Photo of Leland Stanford Jr.

(Image credit: University Archives and Special Collections)


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.”


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.”

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.