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The Tiny, Murderous World Of Frances Glessner Lee

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 18, 2017 8:15 pm

How do you learn to solve a crime? Police detectives spend years learning on the job, sifting through evidence in real world crime scenes. But a new show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. explores another approach — it's called Murder Is Her Hobby, and it showcases the work of one woman who was both a master craftswoman, and a pioneer in the field of forensic crime scene investigation. Her teaching tool? Tiny replica crime scenes.

And at first glance, there's something undeniably charming about the 19 dioramas on display. That is, of course, until you start to notice the macabre little details: an overturned chair, or a blood spattered comforter. And there's always a body — stabbed, drowned, shot — or something more mysterious.

The tiny cans of food in these model rooms, the newspapers printed with barely legible newsprint, the ashtrays overflowing with half-smoked cigarettes are all the creations of one woman, Frances Glessner Lee. "She's considered the godmother of forensic science today for a reason," says curator Nora Atkinson. "She really transformed the field."

Lee, was born into a wealthy family in Chicago in the late 1870s, and as a young woman, she got hooked on Sherlock Holmes stories — which sparked a lifelong fascination with crimes and the investigators who solved them. "She spent a lot of years sort of pining to be in this forensic field and hanging around with forensic investigators and learning about the field, but not able to pursue it," Atkinson says.

She couldn't pursue forensic investigation because the field was dominated by men — but Lee eventually found a way to make her mark.

In the early 1930s, Lee inherited control of her family fortune, and decided to use it to help start a Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. Students there needed to learn how to read crime scenes without disturbing potential evidence, and Lee had an idea about how to do that: At the turn of the century, miniature model making was a popular hobby among wealthy women, Lee included. She used the techniques she'd mastered building dollhouses to make tiny crime scenes for the classroom, a series she called the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

"They do something that no other medium can do. You can't do it with film, you really couldn't do it with still images. Even today I don't think there's a computer simulation that does what the nutshells can do," says Bruce Goldfarb. He oversees the collection at its permanent home at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Md. The models are so convincing that they're still being used to train criminal investigators from around the country. "She knew that she was dealing with hard-boiled homicide detectives and so there couldn't be anything remotely doll-like about them. They were not toys," Goldfarb says.

At the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, dozens of distinctly soft-boiled detectives are puzzling over the models. They use little flashlights to investigate each scene. Laura Manning is stooped over a three-room house, the site of what appears to be a triple homicide. "So there's like a splot of blood here and there," she notes, "but there's no footprints, and then the footprints really don't start until the bedroom, and that's the confusing part."

Nearby, Jonathan Dorst is peering into a bedroom with a single miniature doll corpse. "He is in bed, where he's found dead, and I clearly should not be a detective because I have no idea what could have happened," he laughs.

"I think people do come here expecting that they're going to be able to look at these cases and solve them like some Agatha Christie novel," says curator Nora Atkinson. "And when you look at them you realize how complicated a real crime scene is."

Bruce Goldfarb says that beyond training viewers to identify evidence, Frances Glessner Lee's choice of subjects for the Nutshell Studies contain a deeper message about her vision. "They're people who are sorta marginalized in many ways," he says. "They're prisoners and prostitutes. And these are people who don't usually have their lives documented in art. Frances felt that every death is important and every death deserves a thorough scientific investigation."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's another museum exhibition in Washington, D.C., a temporary one we'd like to tell you about. This one asks, how do you learn to solve a crime? Police detectives spent years learning on the job, sifting through evidence in real-world crime scenes. A new show at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery explores another approach - tiny replica crime scenes created by a master craftswoman and pioneer in the field of forensic crime-scene investigation. The show is called Murder Is Her Hobby, and NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi went to check it out.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: At first glance, there's something undeniably charming about the 19 dioramas on display, a series of softly lit domestic scenes, some of them cozy enough to want to inhabit. That is, until you start to notice the morbid little details - an overturned chair or a blood-spattered comforter. And there's always a body, a doll that's been stabbed, hung, shot or something more mysterious. There are also miniscule cans of food, tiny newspapers printed with barely legible newsprint and ashtrays overflowing with half-smoked cigarettes, all of it created by Frances Glessner Lee.

NORA ATKINSON: She's considered the godmother of forensic science today for a reason. She really transformed the field.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's the show's curator, Nora Atkinson. The artist Frances Glessner Lee was born into a wealthy Chicago family in the 1870s. As a young woman, Lee got hooked on Sherlock Holmes stories and began a lifelong fascination with crimes and the investigators who solved them.

ATKINSON: She spent a lot of years sort of pining to be in this forensic field and hanging around with forensic investigators and learning about the field but not able to pursue it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Because the field was dominated by men. But Lee eventually found a way to make her mark. In the early 1930s, she decided to use her family fortune to start a program in legal medicine at Harvard University. And she turned to a hobby popular among wealthy women like herself or in the turn of the century - miniature model-making. She used the techniques she'd mastered crafting intricate dollhouses to recreate real-life crime scenes for the classroom, a series she called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

BRUCE GOLDFARB: She knew that she was dealing with hardboiled homicide detectives, and so there couldn't be anything remotely doll-like about them. They were not toys.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bruce Goldfarb oversees the collection at its permanent home at the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore, Md.

GOLDFARB: They do something that no other medium can do. You couldn't do it with film. You really can't do it with still images. Even today, I don't think that there's a computer simulation that does what the nutshells can do.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Goldfarb says that unlike real crime scenes, which are eventually cleaned up and easily contaminated, the nutshell studies offered students a scene make it revisit again and again, filled with both salient clues and distracting details. And they're still being used to train criminal investigators from around the country.

LAURA MANNING: See, the baby also has a blood spatter.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: At the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, dozens of soft-boiled detectives are puzzling over the models with varying degrees of success. They use little flashlights to investigate each scene. Laura Manning is stooped over a three-room house which appears to be the site of a triple homicide.

MANNING: So there's like a spot of blood here and there, but there's no footprints. And the footprints really don't start till the bedroom, and that's the confusing part.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Nearby, Jonathan Dorst is peering into an orderly bedroom with a lone miniature doll corpse.

JONATHAN DORST: He is in bed, where he's found dead. And I clearly should not be a detective because I have no idea what could have happened.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Beyond training the viewers to identify evidence, Bruce Goldfarb with the Maryland Chief Medical Examiner says that Frances Glessner Lee's choice of subjects for the nutshell studies were also meant to train investigators to check their own preconceptions about the victims.

GOLDFARB: They're people who are sort of marginalized in many ways. They are prisoners and prostitutes. And these are people who don't usually have their lives documented in art. And Frances felt that every death is important and every death deserves a thorough scientific investigation.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Goldfarb says that it was both Frances Glessner Lee's fastidious attention to detail and her desire for equal justice that made her work so important to the field of forensic investigation. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.