Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies

Frances Glessner LeeMurder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death explores the surprising intersection between craft and forensic science.

Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) made the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” in exquisitely detailed miniature crime scenes to train homicide investigators. In a nutshell: “to convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth.” These dollhouse-sized true crime scenes were created in the first half of the 20th century and are still used in forensic training today. They helped to revolutionize the emerging field of forensic science.

Now you can see the doll houses for yourself. From October 20, 2017 through January 28, 2018 the Renwick Gallery exhibits these training tools.

If you want a sneak peak before heading out to Washington D.C. check out this guest blog post by movie director Susan Marks. She kindly wrote a guest blog post for my blog about the doll houses.

Frances Glessner Lee, the first female police captain in the U.S., is considered the “godmother of forensic science.” She was a talented artist as well as criminologist, and constructed the Nutshells beginning in the early 1940s to teach investigators at Harvard University’s department of legal medicine how to properly canvass a crime scene to effectively uncover and understand evidence.

The equivalent to “virtual reality” in their time, her masterfully crafted dioramas feature handmade elements to render scenes with exacting accuracy and meticulous detail. 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.”

  • Exhibition: Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”
  • Where: Renwick gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1st floor (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W.)
  • When: October 20, 2017 – January 28, 2018