THE ART OF MURDER: FRANCES GLESSNER LEE AT THE SMITHSONIAN

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Art is weird, but it’s cool, because it’s weird on purpose. Or that’s what I repeat to myself as I wander aimlessly around museums wondering how art is determined to be “good” or “life-altering.” It almost all looks like the result of somebody going too far in on a batch of weed brownies to me. But, that’s cool I guess? Anyways – I digress. We’ve touched on art in the District before, from new mural installations to museum displays, and with the turn of the season it seems new and exciting art is rushing in from all directions. While scoping out the latest on the scene, I stumbled across an up-and-coming exhibit that will be featured in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery – and it’s weird alright. But weird in one of those you’ll totally want to see it, read up on it, and gawk at it from all angles.

The culprit behind this up and coming addition is Frances Glessner Lee. It seems to understand her art (or be less creeped out by it), you first must understand her story. Lee was no stranger to the limelight, dubbed the “godmother of forensic science” after working tirelessly with others to develop a forensic pathology program at Harvard University. She was determined not to keep her keen observational skills and knack for unearthing crime scenes to herself though – Lee was dedicated to training police and detective recruits. And while her intentions were pure, her strategy was a little…unordinary.

Instead of teaching through books, lectures, movies, reenactments, or any combination of the usual, Lee took to creating crime scenes of her own…in miniature form. She turned dollhouses into crime scenes. Yet still, that doesn’t even cover it. Because Lee did nothing halfway – she didn’t simply splatter some fake blood (*cough* red nail polish *cough*) on Barbie’s new hardwoods and look at her protégés with her hands on her hips and say “whodunit?” No, she went much, much further that that…so far, in fact, that her examples are considered art.

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Lee left no detail unaccounted for – making it so that her dollhouse crime scenes were like real-life crime scenes; anything could be a clue. In the houses were teddy bears that Lee hand-knit herself, there is real tobacco inside of miniature cigarettes that she also rolled, along with dozens of other tiny details hidden within larger scenes.

There are 19 of Lee’s dioramas to be put on exhibition at the Smithsonian, scheduled for viewing from October 20th through January 28th, 2018. Upon visiting, observers will be given flashlights and magnifying glasses so that they can see the nooks and crannies of each scene. The crime scene reports that investigators would have been handed during training will also be available. While on display, the museum will simultaneously be taking on the monumental (and expensive) task of preserving these pieces of work, which according to matter experts, is desperately needed. According to CBC, Lee called her finished scenes “nutshells,” because she was convinced you could use them to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”

Many were (and still are) in awe of the level of detail and accuracy that is present in these crime scene replicas. Built in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Lee spent enough money on each model to account for an actual full-sized house. Bruce Goldfarb, who is the executive assistant to the chief medical examiner of Maryland and de facto curator of the dioramas, was quoted in National Geographic trying to fully explain the all-encompassing nature of these models. Referring specifically to a scene where a women lies dead in a bathtub in the midst of her shabby home, he says:

“What blows my mind is the boards under the sink are water-stained. It has no significance at all, but nothing escaped her observation. There was real plaster and lath; those walls have studs, and the doors are framed.”

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Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, again, will be on display starting October 20th, and whether you’re into crime scene investigations or freaky art, they’re going to be worth perusing. Even compared to some modern-day methods of training, Goldfarb stands by Lee’s unique approach, as quoted in the Baltimore Sun:

“There is no other way to learn to see; it’s about training to observe. These three-dimensional representations do something that can’t be done by any other medium…They are like a real crime scene, as detailed and overwhelming.”

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