Lifestyle & Culture

Murder Comes to the Renwick

October 21, 2017

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AS A LITTLE GIRL I loved dollhouses, which usually came into my life as shoeboxes. I drew decorations on paper to cover walls and rugs, found ways to craft the odd table or chair. As a summer sideline, I drew paper dolls and created dresses for them, also on paper. Sometimes my two amateurish endeavors came together—but never with any realism: The dolls were always too big for the shoebox dioramas I made. I still loved them both.

Never in my wildest nightmares, though, would I have imagined making a dollhouse murder scene! Frances Glessner Lee, on the other hand, was no little girl whiling away rainy days. She was the first female police captain in the US (albeit an honorary one) and is considered to be the mother of forensic science. And she did make little dioramas of murder scenes.

Using real crimes and crime scenes as inspiration, Lee crafted dioramas of mayhem that she would present to (male) investigators in training at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Legal Medicine to teach them how to properly canvass a crime scene. That was back in the 1940s, and some of these “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” are still used as teaching aids.

Aside from their ghastly subject matter, they are quite charming, though decidedly downscale, working-class environments, depicting hardscrabble lives (and deaths) that are a far cry from the elegant dollhouses that usually make their way into museum collections.

Also a far cry from the privileged life Lee lived, heir to the International Harvester fortune accumulated by her industrialist father. But privilege had its limits: It wasn’t until her parents and her brother were dead that she, divorced and age 52, began the career in crime and forensic science she had long wanted.

One could say she bought her way in, by endowing various courses at Harvard, which allowed her to exhibit her Nutshells and challenge her students to figure out the crime; but along the way she inspired cities across the country to replace coroners with medical professionals. (One could also say she inspired any number of television shows, such as “Quincy, ME” in the 1970s and, more recently, “Bones” and “Criminal Minds” and any of the versions of “Law & Order.”)

Now Lee’s Nutshells are on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, through January 28, 2018, the first time all 19 known Nutshells have been gathered for exhibition.

—Nancy McKeon

Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, through January 28, 2018 at the Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW. Open daily from 10 am to 5:30 pm (closed December 25). Admission is free.

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