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Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are a series of dollhouses built to mimic real crime scenes. They were created as a teaching tool. A collection of tiny crime scenes created by Frances Glessner Lee, the “Godmother of Crime Science Investigation”.

In 1936 she gave a large sum of money to Harvard University to establish the first program of legal medicine.  The program trained doctors to become medical examiners. In 1945, Lee started and presided over week-long training seminars to teach police how to gather clues from a crime scene.

Given that it was logistically and legally impossible to visit real crime scenes during the training seminars, Lee decided she would build miniature death scenes for the police to study. Each one would be based on a real death.

A doll lays dead on the floor of a bathroom.

I learned about these studies from an episode of 99% Invisible from 2015. I noted at the time the Nutshell Studies were moved to the Baltimore Medical Examiner after Lee’s death but they were not on display since they are still active teaching tools.

In a chance reading of the Washington Posts “13 Things to do in DC this weekend” post, I learned they were on display at the Renwick Gallery. They have been on display since October but I only learned about it this weekend. Bill as “This rare public display explores the unexpected intersection between craft and forensic science” I couldn’t possibly resist.

My wife and I visited the gallery today and it’s a good thing we got there early. We arrived about an hour after opening for today and there was already a line out the door. The exhibit was elbow-to-elbow people and many were trying to solve the mysteries at the expense of everyone else behind them.

The crowd of people trying to see the dollhouses.

The staff did a good job of keeping people moving and trying to get people through but it was a losing battle with so many people trying to see such small objects, they did their best. Even with all the people, I had a blast seeing these works in person.

The level of detail was exquisite. The tiny bodies were burned, hung, shot and dead from all manner of unexplained circumstances. Each study had the original statement taken from the event they depicted. There was enough story to set their scene we were looking at, but there were no solutions. Since they are still used as teaching tools, that makes sense.

View from above of a multiple rooms of a house with dead doll bodies.

Published inObservations