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Stanford University

Q & A with Mark Dion

Part 1

Love, Death, and Mourning

Q: Can you talk about the impact of Leland Stanford Jr.’s death?

A: We imagine that if Leland Jr. hadn’t died of typhoid, we wouldn’t have had The Leland Stanford Jr. Memorial Museum or Stanford University. The response of the Stanfords, particularly Jane Stanford, to Leland’s death, was that ‘the children of California will be our children.’”

So, without the death of Leland Stanford Jr. we don’t have the museum, and we don’t have Stanford University. Without Stanford University, we probably don’t have the Silicon Valley. Without the Silicon Valley, there are a number of aspects of contemporary life that we certainly don’t have in the way that they look today, including personal computers, and phones, and the internet. Perhaps those things would have evolved other ways and in other places, but there’s no certainty of that.

So really, the death of a child sets off a chain reaction that dramatically shapes the course of the information future of the world.


Q: Can you discuss Jane Stanford’s profound grief?

A: The death of a child before the parent is an unbearable catastrophe, even more acute when it is an only child. Grief is an incredibly powerful motivator. I wouldn't necessarily say that Jane Stanford's grief is more intense than most, but she certainly was a person who had the means to prolong that grief, and to celebrate the life of her dead child in ways that most people would not have been able to do. I have no doubt of the sincerity of her grief and its depth. But of course, most people in the work-a-day world would just have to get on with their lives after spending so much energy on materializing the child's memory.

As a woman of means, she had the opportunity to prolong and enshrine her grief in a productive way, by making memorials, commemorations, a university and a museum. But at the same time, it does seem to me that it also prolonged the painfulness of the loss, which is one of the most melancholy aspects of the story.

For example, she had her son's personality analyzed, based on a photograph that had been taken of him, and, of course, she had dabbled in spiritualism and the possibility of contacting him beyond the mortal realm. An endless stream of portraits of the boy were painted after his death. Jane Stanford was masterful in the perpetuation of her pain. To any parent, the depth of her grief is entirely sympathetic.