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Armchair Detectives and the Allure of Death in Miniature at the Smithsonian

It was one of the coldest January days in recent memory, but that didn’t seem to deter the crowds inside the Renwick Gallery of American Art in downtown Washington, D.C. As I entered the museum that afternoon in 2018, I ran into a dense crowd of people—all simply waiting to enter the museum’s blockbuster exhibit “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” We were all there to play armchair detective, but would have to wait our turn to do so.

The “nutshells” that drew visitors to the Renwick are 19 meticulously-crafted dioramas, all handmade by Frances Glessner Lee, that depict suspicious or violent deaths. Born into a wealthy Chicago family in 1878, Lee defied the gender and class expectations of her time to become a respected forensics educator. Lee’s early ambitions initially were stymied by her family’s restrictions and the limited opportunities for women in law enforcement at the time, but she pursued her passion privately. Following her brother’s death in 1929, she made a gift in his honor to help found the new Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University, the first of its kind in the United States.1

Lee is best known for her “nutshell” dioramas, which played a central role in the department’s training seminars throughout the 1940s and 1950s.2 Visiting detectives used the dioramas to learn how to read crime scenes strategically and enhance their investigative skills. Lee crafted her dioramas obsessively—installing doors with working locks, hand-rolling miniature cigarettes, and carefully posing doll corpses—to create compelling composite scenes drawn from real cases. But their dollhouse aesthetic was not meant to charm. As Bruce Goldfarb, Executive Assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner of Baltimore County, told NPR, “[Lee] 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.”3

photo of a diorama showing a woman standing in the corner of the room (well, she's actually a doll - it's a diorama) with furniture knocked over
Still image of one of the diorama vignettes. (©Renwick Gallery)

Nevertheless, I was charmed by the dioramas when I encountered them in person. Designed at a one-inch-to-one-foot scale, the scenes were scattered throughout two dimly-lit rooms, the darkness beautifully punctured by the soft, warm glow they emitted. Most were embedded in the walls, below eye level, requiring visitors to bend down to see. Small flashlights and magnifying glasses next to each display let us see the smallest details: a worn-down patch in the floor, a victim’s coat slung on a chair. Accompanying each diorama was a brief narrative about the scene that included the name of the victim, when the decedent was last seen, and who discovered the body. These panels gave us just enough information to awaken our curiosity: what happened to this poor soul?

The exhibit further stimulated this curiosity by encouraging visitors to put the puzzle together. The exhibit included a “theory board” for a diorama called “The Kitchen,” and asked visitors to post sticky notes stating whether the victim had died by suicide, homicide, or accident. Similarly, visitors were prompted to post other theories on social media (#RenwickGallery). The museum’s decision to keep the solutions to the dioramas concealed—to preserve their educational value—only deepened the mystery. The invitation to share our theories clearly authorized us to act as investigators, and many jumped into the role with glee.

The gallery buzzed as visitors pointed out clues and shared interpretations with one another. Even I, an introvert, chatted with an older couple next to me to analyze the “Parsonage Parlor,” a scene of a murdered high-school student. My fellow detectives and I immediately noticed that the doll’s dress was torn, exposing bite marks around her breast. We concluded that she had been sexually assaulted. A knife protruded from her abdomen, but we thought the hammer near her bloodied head suggested that she probably died from head trauma. As we talked, I found that working with the couple amplified my desire to know what happened as we fed off each other’s enthusiasm for the case. I realized sheepishly that, deep down, I believed my years of watching Law & Order qualified me to solve the puzzle, but resolution never came. This cycle of intrigue, inspection, speculation, and frustration continued as I moved through the gallery.

diorama showing a girl laying on the floor with a knife sticking out of her belly. two arm chairs in the background corners of the room, some other furniture.
Still image of Frances Glessner Lee’s “Parsonage Parlor” diorama vignette. (©Renwick Gallery)

It was clear that the exhibit operated like a game, akin to murder mystery dinners and other “whodunit?” experiences. In an episode of the Smithsonian podcast Sidedoor, host Tony Cohn made an explicit analogy to the board game Clue, asking Goldfarb whether investigators “know that it was Colonel Mustard with a rope in the library?”4 Curator Nora Atkinson understood that visitors might be attracted by the mystery of the dioramas more than their craft, noting “I think people do come here expecting…to look at these cases and solve them like some Agatha Christie novel.”5 Yet, the dioramas were not a game we could “win” because the exhibit did not include the information that detectives require to investigate death fully, such as autopsy reports, photographs, and forensic data. Furthermore, as Goldfarb reminded Cohn, the dioramas weren’t really meant to be solved at all: “it’s not the destination, it’s the path of getting there.”6

As an art museum, the gallery’s wall text elided the role of the dioramas in propagating the modern ideology of forensic science. The current power of forensics in today’s courtroom reflects decades of hard work by scientists, policemen, and prosecutors to convince the public of science’s infallible authority.7 Central to the forensic mythos is a faith in objective science to reveal truth. The aesthetic precision of Lee’s dioramas reflects her adherence to this mythos of objectivity. While the dioramas promise the chance to “see” death, the reality is that the dioramas are merely representations of the truth. For all the museum’s deep awareness about the constructedness of these objects, the show never asked viewers to consider how the dioramas’ material richness convinces us of their accuracy and presumes a direct relationship between what we see and what we know.

Instead, I suspect that the Renwick’s visitors were drawn in by the opportunity to safely engage with death. For no matter how convincing Lee’s work is, her representations can only provide a small window onto the reality of death. For example, when I try to imagine the real experience of witnessing the “Parsonage Parlor,” it becomes apparent how unrealistic the diorama is: we cannot smell the girl’s blood, we cannot experience the uncanny stillness of her body; and, thankfully, we do not hear her mother’s anguish upon learning of the girl’s death. As such, I felt the exhibit paradoxically increased our distance from death by framing it as a visual spectacle. My interpretation was only deepened when I learned of the museum’s attempt to generate Christmas spirit in December 2017, when its blog encouraged people to make gingerbread dioramas (#GingerdeadCSI), promising a prize for the most “clever baker-turned-detective.”8

I am glad to see the work of Frances Glessner Lee receive greater public recognition and was truly excited to see how deeply engaged the visitors were. But I wonder whether the museum missed an opportunity to teach us about the construction of forensic authority, especially in an era when certain forms of forensic evidence are now called into question. What’s more, the display of the dioramas may have played into a less savory aspect of our true crime obsession, as visitors (myself included) were quick to rush to judgment about the cases without knowing all the details. I can’t begrudge the Renwick’s visitors for being charmed by the beauty of Lee’s dioramas, but at what cost?

Notes

  1. “The People,” Glessner House website (April 8, 2019); “Frances Lee Glessner (1878-1962), wall text, “Murder is Her Hobby.” Return to text.
  2. Laura J. Miller, “Frances Glessner Lee: Brief life of a forensic miniaturist: 1878–1962,” Harvard Magazine (September–October 2005). Return to text.
  3. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, “The Tiny, Murderous World of Frances Glessner Lee,” All Things Considered (November 18, 2017). After Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine shuttered in 1966, the dioramas were gifted to the Baltimore County Medical Examiner’s Office, where they currently reside. The exception is the so-called “lost” diorama, held by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Return to text.
  4. Ep. 10: Murder is Her Hobby,” Sidedoor podcast. Return to text.
  5. Quoted in Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, “The Tiny, Murderous World of Frances Glessner Lee,” Oregon Public Broadcast, November 18, 2017 (accessed March 17, 2019). Return to text.
  6. Ep. 10: Murder is Her Hobby,” Sidedoor podcast. Return to text.
  7. This faith was neither immediate nor uncontested. On the building of faith in forensics, see Simon A. Cole, Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Tal Golan, Laws of Men and Laws of Nature: The History of Scientific Expert Testimony in England and America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Michael Lynch, Simon A. Cole, Ruth McNally, and Kathleen Jordan, Truth Machine: The Contentious History of DNA Fingerprinting (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008). Return to text.
  8. Recipe for a Holiday Murder,” SAAM blog, (accessed March 16, 2019). Return to text.

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