Murder in Miniature: Frances Glessner Lee at the Renwick Gallery

Ashleigh Hibbins


Museum Professional

Dead bodies. blood spatters. Grisly murder scenes. These are not the dollhouses of your childhood.

How did a set of tiny yet terrifying dioramas revolutionize forensic science?

Photo credit: Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons.

Through the creative genius of Frances Glessner Lee, first female police captain in America and crime scene investigator-extraordinaire.

During the 1940s and 50s, Lee spent years creating the ‘Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’, 19 (originally 20) painstakingly-accurate dioramas to train budding forensic investigators on the crucial skills of crime scene observation and analysis. Each model cost between $3000 – $4,500 to produce and were based on real crime scenes and autopsies Lee encountered throughout her career. She spent countless hours recreating her miniature macabre worlds, including real working doors and windows, and complete sets of clothes for each victim.

Photo credit: Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons.

The Nutshells are incredibly accurate representations of real unexplained deaths – Lee only changed small details to protect the privacy of the victims. Each figure’s position and appearance accurately reflects biological processes specific to the time and cause of death, and tiny details such as clothing fibres or a miniature bullet casing give clues to what happened.

But Lee’s life wasn’t just an episode of CSI: New York in miniature. She was a forensic science visionary who revolutionized her field while also smashing the patriarchy of crime investigation in the 1940s and 50s.

Born in 1878, Lee was not a trained artist and didn’t begin making the Nutshells until she was in her 60s – proof it’s never too late to start something awesome. She was a wealthy heiress to her family’s agricultural fortune, but as a woman was discouraged from joining the male-dominated world of crime investigation. She controversially divorced her husband in 1914, but it wasn’t until two decades later that she inherited her father’s fortune and was finally free to pursue her dream. At the age of 52, Lee used her wealth to endow the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine – the first of its kind in the US – and a national organization for the promotion of forensic science.

In the 1940s and 50s, crime scene investigators had little forensic or medical training, leading to contaminated scenes, overlooked evidence, and inaccurate causes of death. Lee and her colleagues combined the science of forensics with the art of model making to pioneer improved methods of crime scene investigation that we still use today.

Photo credit: Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons.

A champion for highlighting crimes against women and the working classes, Lee’s creations reflected the social status of the victims, right down to what clothing fabrics they would have been able to afford. Her Nutshells didn’t just change the way crime was investigated, but also highlighted the need to find justice for all victims, not just the wealthy and powerful.

Recently, the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. held hosted the first public showcase of all 19 Nutshells, and explored Lee’s immense contributions to homicide investigation and the art of miniature-making. The exhibition encouraged visitors to use flashlights and magnifying glasses to solve the crimes featured in each Nutshell, and even used VR technology to allow visitors to dive deeper into the scenes with their smartphone.

The Renwick Gallery. Photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly, Lee’s amazing creations couldn’t stay at the Renwick forever – in January 2018 their permanent home with the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore needed them back, where they are still used for teaching purposes more than 70 years after they were made.

Photo credit: Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons.

Glass ceiling-smasher, equal justice champion, artistic ace, forensic guru, and female philanthropist: Frances Glessner Lee is a real-life superhero. No wonder she’s still known today as the mother of forensic science.

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