It was a beautiful day in Washington, so I took a leisurely 20-minute walk to the Renwick Gallery, which houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of contemporary craft and decorative art.
An exhibition of the works of Frances Glessner Lee opened at the Renwick over the weekend. You’ve probably never heard of her; I certainly hadn’t.
Lee was the first female police captain in the U.S. She’s known, by people who know that sort of thing, as “mother of forensic science,” for helping to found the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. And beginning in the 1940s, she created the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”.
The Nutshell Studies are intricately-detailed miniature dioramas of crime scenes, used to train police how to find and evaluate evidence, and to determine what took place at the scene of the crime. The 19 surviving dioramas, of the original 20, are still in use at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore. They’ll be on display at the Renwick through 28 January 2018, and they’re quite wonderful.
Next to each miniature model is a summary of the basic facts of the case: Who found the body, the known history of the victim, etc. The viewer is invited to examine the diorama and attempt to determine what happened. Murder, suicide, or accident?
So whodunit? The Renwick provides no solutions to the cases, since Lee’s models are still used to test trainees. Except for this exhibition, in fact, the dioramas are not available for public viewing.
Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962, but her influence lives on. During her lifetime, Erle Stanley Gardner, the author of the Perry Mason novels, dedicated several of the books to Lee. Much more recently, the television series CSI and The Father Brown Mysteries have featured episodes that involved Lee-inspired crime dioramas.
It was a pleasant if ever-so-slightly morbid way to spend an afternoon.
Here’s the Renwick’s exhibition video:
All images came from the Renwick.