From the outside, the 19 dollhouse rooms spread across a darkened space in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery look like perfect replicas of familiar spaces: a family home, a neat parsonage, a woman’s bedroom. But inside, under the glow of a flashlight, these meticulous miniaturized spaces are covered in blood spatters, murder weapons and “dead” porcelain figures: A man hanging from a rope in his barn. A girl collapsed backward into a grungy bathtub. A baby shot in its crib.
These are the so-called “Nutshells,” death scenes created by 20th century heiress, scientist and artist Frances Glessner Lee, the “godmother of forensic science,” who made these dioramas of real-life cases to help future investigators do more accurate forensic crime analysis.
Now, visitors to the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., can also try to solve the cases in Lee’s 19 miniature death scenes — some of them unsolved.
The Renwick’s exhibition “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” marks the first time Lee’s 19 dollhouse dioramas are on public display together. Before the Renwick displayed them as art, the dollhouses were case studies, used for years in an annual seminar in Baltimore to train future crime investigators.
So what can art purveyors-turned-amateur detectives learn from these miniature crime scenes? We visited the Renwick with a member of Baltimore’s Chief Medical Examiner office, which lent the dollhouse scenes to the Renwick and hosts the annual Frances Glessner Lee Seminar in Homicide Investigation, to learn how to solve a crime like real investigators.
Bruce Goldfarb, a special assistant at the office, said that before Lee’s work there was virtually no training for homicide detectives. In 1945, she began the seminar that still occurs annually with the curriculum mostly unchanged. Every crime scene investigation television spinoff – from “CSI: Miami,” to “Hawaii Five-O” and NCIS – can be traced back to Lee’s work, Goldfarb said.
For investigators, the goal of studying the Nutshells is not to guess the cause of death. Instead, Lee wanted them to learn how to properly and thoroughly examine a case.
Lee was born in 1878. The Chicago heiress was interested in pathology and crime from a young age, and in 1943, became the first female police captain in the U.S. She began building the Nutshells in the 1940s, and also helped establish Harvard’s forensic pathology program, where the dollhouse pieces were housed before going to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on an indefinite loan.
Renwick curator Nora Atkinson first came across Lee’s work while studying another miniaturist artist, Rick Araluce, and soon began work on an exhibition.
The result was a two-year collaboration and conservation effort to bring Lee’s Nutshells back to their former glory, which involved working with a lighting team to create entirely new miniature light bulbs for inside the houses, painstakingly matching colors to Lee’s nail polish “blood” and even following her handwritten directions for the scenes, hidden on the dioramas themselves. The conservation team also had to be careful not to undo stains and wear that Lee purposefully included to better depict her scenes.
Before the restoration, degradation within the pieces was sometimes distracting and began to look like fake clues, he said. Quick fixes from the past also changed Lee’s original intentions, such as altering the time of day with the lights used.
“Conservation is best done when it’s invisible,” Goldfarb said. “They did such an amazing job with preserving the integrity of what she created and stopping the ageing process. They have really preserved these for another generation.”
Lee often used details in real witness statements and reports from crimes in the New England area. She also added touches of her own, down to a kitchen’s mini egg beater, which she repurposed from a charm bracelet. She was known to be so detailed that she once had a miniature rocking chair remade three times so it could rock more realistically.
The heiress spent $6,000 or more on each diorama, Goldfarb said, noting that for the “Burned Cabin,” Lee took a blowtorch to part of her masterpiece.
Lee’s life as an heiress did not look like many of the lives of the victims shown in her Nutshells, many of whom were prostitutes, drinkers and overlooked members of society. Still, Atkinson believes some of Lee’s unhappiness in her personal life — she was married at age 19 to a lawyer, but after having three children, divorced.– is shown through her work, especially in how she subverted the ideal home of a dollhouse to show death scenes.
“Her parents really heavily pushed Lee toward feminine crafts,” Atkinson said. “And the irony of it is it was the feminine crafts that they pushed her towards that she ended up using as a foothold to get into a male-dominated world in a way that men would never have thought of doing.”
Atkinson also said her approach was different because instead of treating cases like a whodunit, it was “all about knowing what evidence to collect and having a systematic approach.”
By now, Goldfarb knows how to solve all of the crimes shown in the Nutshells, though he admits some — such as where the last shotgun shell is in the “Three-Room Dwelling” — took him 25 years to discover,
That Nutshell portrays Robert Judson, a foreman in a shoe factory, his wife, Kate Judson, and their baby, Linda Mae Judson, who were all discovered dead by Paul Abbott, a neighbor. The model shows the premises just before Mrs. Abbott went to the house. From the case file: “Dawn broke at 5:00am. Sunrise at 6:17am. Weather clear. No lights were lighted in the house. Both outside doors were locked on the inside.”
“Most women say it was the man and most men say it must have been the woman,” Goldfarb said of cases like the deaths of the Judsons. “But you have to withhold judgement. Before you decide who did it, you have to look at every single detail.”
At the gallery, amateur sleuths are given flashlights, magnifying glasses and case information. They are told that everything, down to the drops of red on a hand-knitted miniature sock can be important … or red herrings. They are taught to look at every detail Lee painstakingly recreated.
“She really made homicide investigation a discipline, she made it a profession,” Goldfarb said.
“Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” runs at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Jan. 28, 2018, after which it will return to the OCME for the spring seminar
This article has been corrected to reflect that the dollhouse scenes are on loan from the Baltimore’s Chief Medical Examiner office, and that Lee demanded perfection on a rocking chair in one of her scenes.