The Renwick’s Exhibition Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”

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  • "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.

    NORA ATKINSON: Hi, my name is Nora Atkinson. I’m a curator at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I’m excited to talk to you today about our new exhibition “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.’

    For this exhibition, we’re bringing together the nineteen surviving examples of dioramas of true crimes known as the ‘Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.’ They were constructed in the 1940s and 50s by a woman named Frances Glessner Lee to train homicide investigators in the emerging field of forensic science how to properly investigate and canvas a crime scene. The Nutshells are still actively used in training today at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland. But I’m using this exhibition as an opportunity to look at them as works of art and material culture. I also want to use this exhibition to tell the story of how one woman co-opted traditionally feminine crafts to advance in a male-dominated field and establish herself as one of its leading voices.

    Frances began building the Nutshells in 1943 to train homicide investigators to, as she put it, “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a Nutshell.” Up until that point there was very 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 challenging crime scene in exacting detail.

    Up until now, the Nutshell studies have been predominantly seen in a scientific light, but with this exhibition we wanted to focus on the skill, artistry, and imagination that Frances brought to these pieces. These miniature environments were composites of true crimes, but the settings and details were imagined by Lee. When you look at them for an artistic perspective you see them in a different light. You see elements from her own life and the causes she cared about that seep into these dramas.

    One of the things I think is most interesting about the nutshells is the fact that the interiors represented are almost all occupied by poor or working-class members of society – by people living on the fringes. Despite her wealthy upbringing, Lee was a real advocate for the forgotten members of society whose cases might be overlooked, dismissed, or tainted with prejudice on the part of the investigator. Above all she was dedicated to a search for truth and justice for every member of society.

    I hope visitors to this exhibition take the time to really immerse themselves in these cases, and I hope they leave with a sense of Frances’s remarkable life and contribution.