Closing Soon: ‘Nutshell Studies’ at Renwick Gallery

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One of the 19 Nutshell Studies on view at the Renwick Gallery through Jan. 28. Photo by Richard Selden.

The subtitle for the exhibition now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, “Murder Is Her Hobby,” is “Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” But it could just as easily have been “Illinois Lee and the Dollhouses of Doom.”

Not that this show needed a catchier title. It’s hard enough to maneuver in the dimly lit galleries, obstructed with display cases and filled with visitors using flashlights (and their phones) to peer into the dollhouse-like scenes of mayhem.

Prior to the closing of “Murder Is Her Hobby” on Sunday, Jan. 28, there are two special events on the Renwick calendar. On Friday, Jan. 19, at noon, photographer Corinne Botz will lead a tour and sign copies of her book about the Nutshell Studies. The following Friday, Jan. 26, at noon, Bruce Goldfarb, from the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, will talk about how Lee advanced the science of forensics and how her clue-filled dioramas continue to be used in training. Both events, and museum admission, are free.

All but one of the 19 Nutshell Studies are on public display for the first time since being loaned to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore in 1967, when Harvard Medical School’s Department of Legal Medicine closed. The department, the first in the country, was endowed by Lee, an International Harvester heiress from Chicago, in the 1930s.

Lee and one of her brother’s Harvard classmates — who served as Boston’s chief medical examiner for 30 years and lectured at the medical school — were seeking to have medical professionals replace coroners as death investigators throughout the U.S.

Based on actual cases of homicide, suicide and accidental death, the Nutshells were created by Lee in the 1940s for use in semiannual seminars at Harvard. They are works of consummate — not to say obsessive — craftsmanship: miniature fabrics are handwoven, doors and windows not only open but lock, electric lights work. (To stay red, the blood would have to be fake, wouldn’t it?)

Born in 1878, Frances Glessner was captivated by Sherlock Holmes stories. After her divorce and her father’s death, she had the freedom and the funds to pursue her singular interest in the investigation of death, becoming known as the “mother of forensic science.” Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner dedicated novels to her and she is said to have inspired Jessica Fletcher, the lead character played by Angela Lansbury in “Murder, She Wrote.”

Though Lee died in 1962, her legacy continues with the Frances Glessner Lee Homicide Investigation Seminar, to be held in Baltimore from April 23 to 27. Among the topics to be discussed are: “Factors Used in Estimating the Time of Death,” “Blood Stain Interpretation” and “Identification by Use of Odontology.” The seminar is not intended for the general public, but if you’re a CSI diehard (pun intended) with $800 to spare, visit harvardpolicescience.org for details.

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