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]

Meet the Artist Who Has Been Sketching New York City Subway Stations for 40 Years

art2002/iStock via Getty Images
art2002/iStock via Getty Images

The aesthetic appeal of New York City's subway system is often hidden behind a layer of grime or simply ignored by commuters. Philip Ashforth Coppola has been admiring those finer points of public transit for more than 40 years.

The New Jersey-based artist began sketching and researching the subway’s interior in 1978, Atlas Obscura reports. His pen drawings are in black and white, but Coppola notes the exact colors and the historic significance behind each. The beaver plaques at the Astor Place station, for example, represents real estate mogul John Jacob Astor, who first made his fortune in the fur trade.

“I’ve spent a lot of years on it,” he says in the 2005 documentary One Track Mind (also the title of his 2018 book). “But I haven’t accomplished that much.” The former art student is selling himself short: Coppola has drawn at least 110 of the city’s 472 stations, resulting in 2000 sketches spanning 41 notebooks.

In an interview with WNYC, Coppola admitted that he wasn’t a train enthusiast as a child. “When I was a kid, I liked to draw pictures and tell stories or write them down,” he says. “That sort of ... filed into this new adventure.”

Coppola sees the drawings as a way to preserve the subway system's overlooked details. “The idea is to make a record of what we’ve got, before more of it is lost," he says.

Even irritable commuters realized the significance of his endeavors. “People were just thunderstruck when they saw [Coppola’s] artwork,” says Jeremy Workman, the documentary's director. “It reminded them of art they had seen themselves and maybe didn’t notice. We thought that was a powerful message: Reminding people of the beauty that’s right in front of their eyes.”

You Can Rent a ‘Lisa Frank Flat’ in Los Angeles on Hotels.com

Hotels.com
Hotels.com

If you went to elementary school in the 1980s or 1990s, chances are there was at least one piece of Lisa Frank gear in your classroom. The artist's aesthetic helped define the decades, and wide-eyed, technicolor animals still hold a special place in the hearts of millennials. Now, you can live out your childhood dream of having a room that looks like the inside of your 3rd grade backpack: a penthouse suite inspired by Lisa Frank is now available to book in Los Angeles.

The Lisa Frank Flat, a collaboration between Lisa Frank and Hotels.com, screams nostalgia. Each room pays homage to the settings and characters in the artist's vast catalog. The bathroom is painted to look like an underwater paradise, with shimmering dolphins swimming in a pink and blue sea. The kitchen is stocked with snacks from your childhood—like Gushers, Pop-Tarts, Pixy Stix, and Planters Cheez Balls—and painted in bright, rainbow animal patterns that will reflect how you feel when your sugar rush peaks.

Lisa Frank bathroom.
Hotels.com

Lisa Frank kitchen.
Hotels.com

In the bedroom, the colors are toned down only slightly. A light-up cloud canopy and a rainbow sky mural create a soothing environment for falling asleep. And if seeing Lisa Frank around every corner makes you feel inspired, there's a place for you to get in touch with your inner pop artist. The desk comes supplied with pencils, folders, and a notebook—all branded with Lisa Frank artwork, naturally.

Lisa Frank bedroom.
Hotels.com

Lisa Frank desk.
Hotels.com

Interested in basking in the glow of your childhood hero for a night? Online reservations for the Lisa Frank Flat at Barsala in downtown Los Angeles will be available through Hotels.com starting October 11 and lasting through October 27. You can book your stay for $199 a night—just don't forget to pack your Trapper Keeper.

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