In the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee, now known as the mother of forensic science, revolutionized crime scene analysis by introducing a novel tool: dioramas. In the Renwick Gallery’s newest exhibit, “Murder is Her Hobby,” nine of Lee’s models are spread throughout the room, each displaying a different death.
Each model’s accompanying description provides a backstory for the death, as well as a flashlight to allow visitors to analyze the details and try to solve the crime and determine whether it was a murder, suicide or accident. On view until Jan. 28, “Murder is Her Hobby” provides a fascinating look at how Lee not only used her dioramas to make strides in forensic science, but also broke into a male-dominated field with the power of intelligent, thoughtful craft.
Lee was born in 1878 to a wealthy family and, after being homeschooled with her brother, was told she was not allowed to attend college. When her brother attended Harvard Medical School, Lee was inspired by the subject matter that he was studying. Upon her brother’s death in 1930, Lee inherited the family fortune and used the money to develop her interest in forensic science and create her dioramas. She endowed the Harvard department of legal medicine and the Harvard Associates in Police Science, and she began hosting seminars about homicide investigation in the 1940s.
During these conferences, she presented listeners with her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” intricate dioramas of difficult, real-life cases designed to challenge students to collect all evidence and appropriately analyze a crime scene. During the seminars, students were allowed 90 minutes to observe the dioramas and then had to draw conclusions about the death. Even now, her “nutshell” models are used to teach forensics by the HAPS program she endowed.
Each diorama cost several thousand dollars to create and was based on an autopsy or crime scene that Lee had personally visited. Lee attended to the models with extraordinary detail, intricately constructing each part so that students had an accurate perception of the crime scene.
She hand-rolled the cigarettes and filled each with tobacco; she created working locks for all doors and windows; she wrote with single-haired paintbrushes; and she stayed true to the decor of each room, from the colors of the walls to the patterns on the curtains.
The 18 dioramas displayed at the Renwick explore a variety of situations, such as a woman hanging in her attic, a woman drowned in her bathtub, a man burned in a house fire and a married couple and their baby killed by gunshot wounds.
One of the most powerful aspects of Lee’s work is in its rebellion. At the time that Lee was creating and presenting these dioramas, it was extremely uncommon for a woman to have a leading role in the male-dominated field of forensic science.
It is potentially because of her role as a woman in a male-dominated field that she chose to be subversive in her work, particularly in the ways she represented women. Many of the victims she chose to display were not seen by society as worthy of thoughtful investigation, such as sex workers, people with alcoholism and poor individuals.
By including these “invisible victims” in her models, Lee demonstrated her belief that the quality of investigative work should not be negatively impacted by the social standing of the victim — she taught investigators to ignore prejudice.
In creating the dioramas, Lee showed how traditional women’s work can be powerful; the sewing, crafting, and creating that she had to do to construct the models was impactful beyond the scope of the home.
The way “Murder is Her Hobby” is displayed at the Renwick provides a level of interaction not typically seen at a museum.
The dioramas are spread throughout the room next to their descriptive plaques, each of which reports on the life and the death of the victim. Flashlights are holstered beneath each piece so that visitors can illuminate the models and try to absorb every detail.
As people gather around each diorama, discussions begin: Visitors point out details to one another, share hypotheses and try to come to conclusions about the circumstances surrounding the victim’s death. In this way, the exhibit is not purely interactive between viewers and models, but encourages conversation between museumgoers.
“Three-Room Dwelling,” a diorama with three rooms in which viewers can see the death of the married couple and their baby, provoked the most conversation during my visit.
Glass surrounds the top of the diorama, so larger groups of visitors surround and orbit it as they discuss the details of the crime scene. These circumstances allow for interaction and collaboration, beyond that of a typical museum experience.
Despite their best efforts to solve the crimes, visitors quickly discover one of the most intriguing, yet frustrating aspects of the exhibit: Since the dioramas are still used to teach, there are no published solutions to the cases.
“Murder is Her Hobby” presents a fascinating look at one of the historical underpinnings of the modern field of forensic science and demonstrates the conflation of criminology and craft. By creating these dioramas, Lee revolutionized the investigation of homicide and made her mark on history — in classrooms, in investigative practice and now in art museums.