Steps from the White House, hanging from a red brick building lit from below like someone holding a flashlight under their chin to tell a ghost story, the banner read, “Murder Is Her Hobby.”
Well now. I was instantly drawn in to Renwick Gallery and Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, an exhibit that highlights her contributions to forensic science and delightfully macabre craftwork.
In a time when women were expected to pursue ladylike hobbies, Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) directed her money and energy to the emerging science of death investigation. She worked with medical personnel and police, and became the first female Police Captain in the United States.
At sixty-five, she combined her love of crafting with her darker interests, and began building her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, grisly death scene dioramas for training police. She spent months on each one, filling them with hand-crafted details. She crafted each with precise elements for investigators to parse out and recreate what happened.
The Renwick Gallery rooms were dark, and the Nutshell Studies were lit from within by tiny lamps and overhead lights. Small flashlights were available to shine into them, illuminating the dark corners just as an investigator would while walking through the scene. Ms. Lee’s details were meticulous: a smear of lipstick on a pillow, a shoe kicked off by a hanging victim, a package of meat left rotting when a body wasn’t found for nearly a week. A victim’s cheeks in a locked garage were painted with a rosy glow in one scene. In another scene, a cabin was burned and someone died, but close examination showed the fire didn’t come from the wood stove.
The Nutshells, as they are called, are homey and chilling. The victims met tragic ends while doing mundane things, like hanging up laundry. Most of the victims were alone in the diorama, the detritus of their life and violent end discarded around them. Some of the case studies gave witness accounts, and it felt like a potential murderer was still very close to the scene.
Most of the Nutshells are housed at Harvard University, and they are still used for training, so the solutions to the scenes are kept secret. Case studies are given for each scene, and it is up to the observer to look for clues and figure out the cause of the unexplained death.
If you would like to play investigator, you can view five of the Nutshell Studies through 360 VR. Click on this link with your mobile device to see the Nutshells in 360 degree view of the Nutshell Studies.
The Renwick Gallery is part of the Smithsonian family of museums, housing contemporary craft and decorative arts. The Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death exhibit runs through January 28, 2018. You can read more about the extraordinary Frances Glessner Lee and her Nutshells in The Atlantic and The Washington Post.