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]

Wish You Could ‘Shazam’ a Piece of Art? With Magnus, You Can

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

While museum artworks are often accompanied by tidy little placards that tell you the basics—title, artist, year, medium, dimensions, etc.—that’s not always the standard for art galleries and fairs. For people who don’t love tracking down a staff member every time they’d like to know more about a particular work, there’s Magnus, a Shazam-like app that lets you snap a photo of an artwork and will then tell you the title, artist, last price, and more.

The New York Times reports that Magnus has a primarily crowdsourced database of more than 10 million art images. Though the idea of creating Shazam for art seems fairly straightforward, the execution has been relatively complex, partially because of the sheer quantity of art in the world. As founder Magnus Resch explained to The New York Times, “There is a lot more art in the world than there are songs.”

Structural diversity in art adds another challenge to the process: it’s difficult for image recognition technology to register 3D objects like sculptures, however famous they may be. Resch also has to dodge copyright violations; he maintains that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies to his app, since the photos are taken and shared by users, but he still has had to remove some content. All things considered, Magnus’s approximate match rate of 70 percent is pretty impressive.

Since the process of buying and selling art often includes negotiation and prices can fluctuate drastically, Magnus gives potential purchasers the background information they need to at least decide whether they’re interested in pursuing a particular piece. Just like browsing around a boutique where prices aren’t included on the items, a lack of transparency can be a deterrent for new customers.

Such was the case for Jelena Cohen, a Colgate-Palmolive brand manager who bought her first photograph with the help of Magnus. “I used to go to these art fairs, and I felt embarrassed or shy, because nothing’s listed,” she told The New York Times. “I loved that the app could scan a piece and give you the exact history of it, when it was last sold, and the price it was sold for. That helped me negotiate.” Through Magnus, you can also keep track of artworks you’ve scanned in your digital collection, search for artworks by artist, and share images to social media.

One thing Magnus can’t do, however, is tell you whether an artwork is authentic or not. The truth is that sometimes even art experts have trouble doing that, as evidenced by the long history of notorious art forgeries.

[h/t The New York Times]

'The Far Side' May Be Making a Comeback Online

tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus
tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus

For the first time ever, it’s looking increasingly likely that cartoonist Gary Larson’s "The Far Side" will be available in a medium other than book collections or page-a-day calendars. A (slightly ambiguous) announcement on the official "Far Side" website promises that “a new online era” for the strip is coming soon.

From 1980 to 1995, "The Far Side" presented a wonderfully irreverent universe in which hunters had much to fear from armed and verbose deer, cows possessed a rich internal life, scientific experiments often went awry, and irony became a central conceit. In one of the more famous strips frequently pasted to refrigerator doors, a small child could be seen pushing on a door marked “pull.” Above him was a sign marking the building as a school for the gifted. In another strip, a woman is depicted looking nervously around a forest while cradling a vacuum cleaner. The caption: “The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, like Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Larson has resisted reproduction of his work online. He famously circulated a letter to "Far Side" fan sites asking them to stop posting the single-panel strips, writing that the idea of his work being found on random websites was bothersome. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me,” he wrote.

Many obliged Larson, though the strip could still be found here and there. That he’s seemingly embracing a new method of distribution is good news for fans, but there’s no concrete evidence the now-retired cartoonist will be following in Breathed’s footsteps and producing new strips. ("Bloom County" returned as a Facebook comic in 2015.) The only indication of Larson’s active involvement is a new piece of art on the site’s landing page depicting some familiar "Far Side" characters being unthawed in a block of ice.

Larson’s comments on a return are few and far between. In 1998, he told The New York Times that going back to a strip was unlikely. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Never say never, but there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that.’” In that same profile, it was noted that 33 million "Far Side" books had been sold.

[h/t A.V. Club]

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