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

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]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
arrow
Animals
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
arrow
History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER