Frances Glessner Lee, Parsonage Parlor, about 1946-48. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD
I’ve been known to go all-out for my favorite holiday, often planning over-the-top costumes, eating more candy than I hand out, and listening to nothing but the “Nightmare Before Christmas” soundtrack for an entire month.
So when I heard that the Renwick Gallery was featuring the work of Frances Glessner Lee’s miniature crime scenes as an exhibit, I welcomed the opportunity to write a Halloween-themed blog post.
Lee was America’s first female police chief, but is better known as the “mother of forensic science.”
During her career in the early 1940s, there wasn’t much out there to train police in how to investigate crime scenes. So, Lee used traditionally feminine craft work to build dollhouse-sized dioramas to train to investigators at Harvard Medical School's Department of Legal Medicine on how to properly canvass a crime scene to uncover and understand evidence.
These “nutshells” were inspired by real crimes, but didn’t exactly resemble their original inspirations. Additionally, she often used female or working-class victims, whose cases she championed. That decision showed a creative and controversial use of artistic direction.
Frances Glessner Lee, Three-Room Dwelling (detail), about 1944-46. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD
“Presenting the Nutshells not as forensics displays but as artworks allows us to highlight the subtly subversive quality of Frances Glessner Lee’s work,” exhibit organizer, Nora Atkinson—The Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft—said in a press release. “She focuses on ‘invisible’ members of society such as impoverished and female victims, and the details she included in her dioramas challenge the association of femininity with order and domestic bliss.”
The exhibition is called “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” It’s open until Jan. 28, 2018. For more information, visit https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/nutshells.
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