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Red Bedroom, Frances Glessner Lee, about 1944-48, mixed media. (Credit: Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death explores the suprising 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, created in the first half of the 20th century and still used in forensic training today, helped to revolutionize the emerging field of forensic science. They also tell 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.

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.

While the nutshells draw from real cases, 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.

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. 

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