From October, 2017 to January, 2018, Frances Glessner Lee’s “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” exhibition made history, ranking as the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery’s second-most attended event in the gallery’s 45-year history.
When I caught the exhibition on a January visit to Washington, D.C., a twenty-minute line looped through Renwick’s gold-trimmed entryway and across black-and-white tiles. Visitors crammed shoulder to shoulder in the dimly-lit gallery, passing around a small flashlight and peering into the dark display cases, each one a deadly mystery in miniature.
In one diorama, a woman lay face down in a marvelously detailed kitchen, the icebox and oven standing open and a wall calendar open to April, 1944. Another diorama featured a woman hanged to death in an attic; a chair was overturned, and letters scattered across the wood floor. The explanatory blurbs on the wall were pithy, as if inviting museum-goers to figure out on their own what might have happened to the unfortunate figurines under glass.
Which is exactly what their creator intended.
The diorama collection was built by Frances Glessner Lee—considered to be the mother of forensic science. In the early 20th century, she became enthralled with death investigations and became a self-taught expert on crime scenes—and the mistakes police often made when investigating them. Lee saw that death-investigation systems badly needed reform, especially in states still using coroners instead of a medical examiner. But how could an aging heiress be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of law enforcement?
Turns out, she did it by building dollhouses…strewn with corpses.
A Craft Becomes a Calling
In the 1930s, Lee used part of her inheritance to fund the establishment of a Harvard program to train doctors as medical examiners. And in the 1940s, Lee began conducting seminars on crime scene investigations for police detectives.
Realizing that her trainees would have few opportunities to visit actual crime scenes, she created a series of extremely detailed dioramas to help them hone their skills of observation without disturbing evidence at the scene. She devised each one based on details of actual cases and then hired a carpenter to build it. Each one took many months to complete. But Lee believed that the details were what mattered, so she spared no expense.
After Lee died in 1962 and Harvard discontinued the program, it looked as though the dioramas would be mothballed. But one of Lee’s former Harvard students who became a medical examiner in Maryland brought the nutshells and the training down to Baltimore. Their permanent home is a small gallery on the fourth floor of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are still used to train medical examiners today.
A Macabre, Humane Artistry
There’s more than just scientific value in those scenes of violence in postwar rural America, says Bruce Goldfarb, the Nutshell Studies caretaker and information officer at the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s Office. There’s real artistry: Many depict lives of isolation and poverty, arrested in a moment of tragedy. In an email, Gordfarb shared with me his theory about Lee’s philosophy: She wanted to show these victims as more than just bodies. “Part of FGL’s intent was not just to convey the facts of a death, but to provide a glimpse into who these people were and their station in life,” he wrote.
“The poor woman in ‘Red Bathroom,’ where the linoleum is worn in front of the commode and the boards beneath the sink are water stained from leaking. There is so much more to discern, more you can infer, when a room is not clean, orderly, and well-maintained.”
But in an era when scenes can be simulated virtually in great detail and digital fingerprints can be traced, will murder dioramas from rotary phone days hold their value as training tools?
“They [do] look sort of dated” Goldfarb admits. “But murder is still murder…The facts of violent death have not changed. Ropes, poisons, blades have not changed. A home is still a home.”
The actual solutions, which remain a highly-guarded secret from anyone but seminar participants, are “not what people would expect,” Goldfarb tells me. “It’s mostly about ‘you should have seen that the body was moved’ or ‘these are important things here or there.’
“The biggest thing—and I see it all the time—they walk up to the diorama and right away ‘figure it out.’ One of [Lee’s] biggest messages was ‘don’t jump to conclusions.’ As soon as you reach a conclusion, you miss evidence.
“Withhold judgement and keep an open mind,” he says. “It’s tempting to look for an easy answer.”
About the Author:
In addition to contributing to PursuitMag, Susanna Speier is the social media strategist and blogger for Ross Investigators of Denver, Colorado. The Denver Private Investigator Blog was recently ranked 4th in the country by PI Now for private investigator blogs. She also consults, gives social media training seminars to private investigators around the country, and is a freelancer for hire, who can be reached through Linkedin.