Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

October 20, 2017 – January 28, 2018

Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW)
Interior detail of red bedroom study

Red Bedroom, Frances Glessner Lee, mixed media

This rare public display explores the unexpected intersection between craft and forensic science.

Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death explores the surprising intersection between craft and forensic science. It also tells the story of how a woman co-opted traditionally feminine crafts to advance the male-dominated field of police investigation and to establish herself as one of its leading voices.

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 dioramas of true crimes, created in the first half of the 20th century and still used in forensic training today, helped to revolutionize the emerging field of homicide investigation.

Lee, the first female police captain in the U.S., is considered the “godmother of forensic science” and helped to found the first-of-its kind Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University when the field of forensics was in its infancy. She was a talented artist as well as criminologist, and constructed the Nutshells beginning in the 1940s to teach investigators 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 objects 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.

A photograph of a nutshell study of unexplained death showing a detail of a burned cabin.

Frances Glessner Lee, Burned Cabin (detail), about 1944-48. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD

While the Nutshells represent composites of real cases, Lee imagined and designed each setting herself. In their astounding accuracy they provide a window into the domestic history and material culture of mid-twentieth century America.

Showcasing the Nutshells at the Renwick allows visitors to appreciate them as works of art and superior craftsmanship, in addition to understanding their importance as forensic tools. It also highlights the subtly subversive quality of Lee’s work—her focus on society’s “invisible victims,” 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.

As the Nutshells are still active training tools, the solutions to each remain secret. However, the crime scene “reports” given to forensic trainees are presented alongside each diorama to encourage visitors to approach the Nutshells the way an investigator would.

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. For the first time since 1966, 18 pieces on loan to the museum from the Harvard Medical School via the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, will be reunited with the “lost nutshell,” on loan from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, courtesy of the Bethlehem Heritage Society. The exhibition is organized by Nora Atkinson, The Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft.

Lee’s hyperreal constructions inspired contemporary artist and scenic designer Rick Araluce, whose immersive, large-scale installation is presented in the adjoining gallery. "Rick Aracluce: The Final Stop opens concurrently with Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death on October 20th.

“The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see. ... So much of our culture has gone digital, and that’s where craft shines, because it’s three-dimensional. You can’t really understand it from the Internet, or from a flat page; you have to investigate it fully in the round.” – Nora Atkinson

Public Programs

Exhibition After-Hours Opening Party with SAAM and Brightest Young Things, Friday, October 20, 8:30 pm - midnight (ticketed)

Life of Frances Glessner Lee Lecture with the Curator of the Glessner House Museum, Saturday, October 21, 2pm

Nutshell Studies Gallery Talk with Curator Nora Atkinson, Wednesday, October 25, noon

Handi-hour, Tuesday, November 7, 5:30 - 8pm (ticketed)

Nutshell Studies Gallery Talk with Curator Nora Atkinson, Wednesday, November 15, noon

Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story Film Screening, Saturday, November 18, 5:30pm

Credit

Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is organized by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the Elizabeth Broun Curatorial Endowment, and the James F. Dicke Family Fund.