Frances Glessner Lee's Crime Dioramas Are Getting Their Own Smithsonian Exhibition

Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD
Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD

Instead of serene landscapes or cozy domestic scenarios, Frances Glessner Lee’s dioramas often depicted murder most foul. Glessner—a crafty Chicago heiress turned forensic science pioneer—is today remembered for creating the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” an assortment of mini-scenes that portrayed real-life killings, suicides, and other mysterious police cases. Once used to train homicide investigators, Lee’s models will soon go on public display for the very first time at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, according to The Washington Post.

“Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” will open on October 20, 2017. The exhibition will showcase 19 crime-scene dioramas, which visitors will be allowed to examine using flashlights and magnifying glasses. Accompanying crime scene reports—once used by investigators-in-training—will provide additional context for each of the scenarios, but guests will be left to solve the crimes using their own devices.

Frances Glessner Lee, "Kitchen" (detail), about 1944 to 1946. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Frances Glessner Lee, "Kitchen" (detail), about 1944 to 1946. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, Maryland

Frances Glessner Lee, "Kitchen" (detail), about 1944 to 1946. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, Maryland

Lee, who was born in 1878, initially led a quiet life as a wife and mother. But after her children were grown and her marriage ended, she was left free to pursue her interest in forensic science. After learning that police and coroners were often relatively untrained in death investigation, Lee began making dioramas from dollhouse miniatures. These tiny rooms and houses were loosely based on real-life New England crime scenes, and came complete with stiff doll “bodies,” murder weapons, blood spatters, and fanciful details from Lee’s own imagination.

“Every element of the dioramas—from real tobacco in miniature, hand-burned cigarette butts, tiny stockings knit with straight pins, and working locks on windows and doors, to the angle of miniscule bullet holes, the patterns of blood splatters, and the discoloration of painstakingly painted miniature corpses—challenges trainees’ powers of observation and deduction,” the Smithsonian explained in a press release.

Frances Glessner Lee, "Burned Cabin," about 1944 to 1948. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Frances Glessner Lee, "Burned Cabin," about 1944 to 1948. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard
University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, Maryland

Frances Glessner Lee, "Burned Cabin," about 1944 to 1948. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD

In addition to creating dioramas, Lee used her family inheritance to fund the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, which taught local police how to solve unexplained deaths using medical techniques. There, the Nutshell Studies were used to teach students how to canvass crime scenes to find and analyze evidence.

Thanks to her extensive work in the field of forensics, the heiress was named an honorary state police captain in New Hampshire in 1943. At the time, she was the only woman in the U.S. to receive this honor. In 1945, Lee partnered with Harvard to found a week-long seminar on forensic science, which still occurs annually and is now known as the Frances Glessner-Lee Seminar in Homicide Investigation. Lee died in 1962, at the age of 83. Today, she’s remembered as “the godmother of forensic science,” according to the Smithsonian.

Nineteen of Lee’s Nutshell Studies survived the ensuing decades, and most of them were kept at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, where they continued to be used for teaching purposes. Now, the Nutshell Studies are receiving much-needed conservation work before going on display. At the Renwick, they will serve as a tribute to Lee and “her focus on society’s ‘invisible victims,’” the Smithsonian says, “particularly women and the working classes, whose cases she championed, and the way in which her dioramas challenge the association of femininity with order and domestic bliss.”

[h/t The Washington Post]

If You Want to Be a Better Learner, Try Drawing (Even If You're Bad at It)

iStock
iStock

Doodling all over your notebook while sitting through class or a meeting might not be so bad after all. According to design historian and art professor D.B. Dowd, even the crudest of drawings can facilitate learning.

Dowd recently spoke with Quartzy about his new book, Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice. In it, he aims to dispel the myth that drawing is only for skilled artists or crafty Pinterest-loving types. Whether you’re doodling a smiley face or penning a map while giving directions, drawing is suitable for everyone, he argues.

“We have misfiled the significance of drawing because we see it as a professional skill instead of a personal capacity,” he writes in his book. “This essential confusion has stunted our understanding of drawing and kept it from being seen as a tool for learning above all else.”

Science seems to back this up. Over a century ago, science students were required to take drawing lessons in order to “learn to observe.” With this in mind, biology professor Jennifer Landin started introducing drawing back into her lesson plans.

“Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she writes for Scientific American. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details. Since some species of dragonfly can only be distinguished from others by the vein patterns in their wings, skipping details is not an option.”

In addition to helping you become a better observer (and thus a better learner), one 2009 study found that drawing also improves memory. Test subjects who doodled while listening to a list of names and places scored 29 percent higher on a surprise quiz of the information than those who didn’t doodle. And while smartphones and laptops can be a distraction, doodling helps you concentrate. The researchers behind one 2011 study theorized that doodling may stimulate “default networks” in the brain, which promote activity in the cerebral cortex even when there are no outside stimuli.

Classroom research has also shown that drawing can be a useful learning aid. When a student is asked to draw a concept like sound waves, for instance, they’re forced to think about it more creatively. Plus, they often enjoy the assignment more, which can’t hurt. So go ahead—break out the pencil and paper and start doodling. It might be good for your brain.

[h/t Quartzy]

New Podcast Opens Up the Cold Case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Art Heist

Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images
Ryan McBride, AFP/Getty Images

One of the newest true crime podcasts gathering buzz doesn't involve a murder or kidnapping—instead, it investigates one of the most infamous art heists in history. Last Seen, a collaboration between WBUR and The Boston Globe, looks at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, a case that has gone unsolved for 28 years.

The story begins on March 18, 1990, when two thieves posing as policemen infiltrated the Boston art museum and stole 13 paintings off the walls. The works are from such master artists as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet, and are estimated to have a cumulative value exceeding $600 million.

The scope of the heist alone would have made it historically significant, but the story became even more interesting after the crime was committed. The case never moved forward, despite a drawn-out investigation and a $10 million reward for the return of the stolen pieces. That didn't mean there weren't suspects: Two unnamed men were identified, but they were killed shortly after the theft, and according to the popular theory, information regarding the location of the stolen artworks died with them.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum case is still filled with mysteries, but the new podcast aims to make the story a little clearer. Hosted by WBUR producers and reporters Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico, and with contributions from Stephen Kurkjian, who spent years covering the heist for The Boston Globe, Last Seen follows the saga from the night the crime was committed to today. It features interviews with investigators who worked on the case and people who were employed by the museum in the early 1990s, some of whom have never before agreed to speak publicly on the subject.

The first episode of Last Seen debuted on WBUR September 17, and the series will include 10 episodes in total.

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