Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
1st floor, Renwick Gallery
(Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W.)
October 20, 2017 – January 28, 2018
Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death explores the unexpected intersection between craft and forensic science. Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) crafted her extraordinary “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” – exquisitely detailed miniature crime scenes – to train homicide investigators to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” These dollhouse-sized diorama composites of true crime scenes, still used in forensic training today, helped to revolutionize the emerging field of forensic science. At the same time, they subverted traditional uses for gendered and domestic crafts such as miniature-making and needlework, offering Glessner Lee a rare and honored position in the male-dominated world of police investigation.
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 tiny, hand-rolled burned cigarette butts, fabrics and wallpaper carefully worn to look faded and old, tiny stockings knit with straight pins, working locks, and curled pages on calendars, to the angle of miniscule bullet holes, the patterns of blood splatters, and the bloating and discoloration of miniature corpses—challenges trainees’ powers of observation and deduction.
While the nutshells draw from real cases, Glessner Lee imagined and designed each setting to resemble but not replicate the original scenes, embellishing them with elements from her imagination and the world she inhabited. In their astounding accuracy they provide a window into the domestic history and material culture of mid-twentieth century America, particularly the lives of women and the working classes, whose cases Glessner Lee championed. They also tell a story of how a woman co-opted traditionally feminine crafts to advance a male-dominated field and establish herself as one of its leading voices.
Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is the first public display of the complete series of nineteen studies still known to exist, reuniting eighteen pieces on loan from the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office with the “lost nutshell” on loan to the museum from the Bethlehem Heritage Foundation for the first time since 1966. The exhibition is curated by Nora Atkinson, the museum’s Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft.