Frances Glessner Lee, Parsonage Parlor, about 1946-48. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD
A knife. A gun. A noose. An attic. A bedroom. A kitchen. An open window. Blood: maybe, maybe not. Whodunit and where?
Beginning in 1943 and continuing through the 1950s, Frances Glessner Lee built dollhouse-like dioramas of true crime scenes to train homicide investigators in the emerging field of forensic science. Her goal was to create a tool that would help "convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell." According to Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery, "Up until that time there was really little science behind forensic investigations. There was no real methodology for canvassing a crime scene so investigators often overlooked clues and bungled evidence. The Nutshells were the equivalent of virtual reality in their time, recreating a challenging crime scene in exacting detail." The Nutshells are still being used today for training purposes by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland. All surviving nineteen Nutshells will be on view in the exhibition, Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
This isn't just a story about crime and science, however. It's also about Lee's accomplishments and creativity. According to Atkinson, it's the story of "art and material culture and how one woman co-opted traditionally feminine crafts to advance in a male-dominated field and establish herself as one of its leading voices." Lee became the first female police captain in the country and is considered the godmother of forensic science, having endowed and then taught at Harvard's Department of Legal Medicine.
A talented artist and criminologist, Glessner Lee's re-creations are miniature worlds, meticulously crafted. When you visit the Renwick and encounter the Nutshells, grab a flashlight and imagine yourself in Lee's shoes for a while. Take a careful look and don't take anything for granted. There are clues everywhere. Perhaps you'll discover a knife, a gun, or a noose....and will have your own theories about "whodunit."
Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death remains on view at SAAM's Renwick Gallery through January 28, 2018.
Dying to learn more about the Nutshells? Check out SAAM's exhibition page and related programming.