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