Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dioramas of Death: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Sometimes you com across an artist and a book that you are mesmerized by. That is how you may feel when you look at this book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. These small studies of crime scenes and death by Frances Glessner Lee are extraordinary glimpses into the world of forensics in a deadly miniature scale.

Frances Glessner Lee was a very wealthy grandmother who founded the Department of Legal medicine at Harvard in 1936. She was also a police captain in New Hampshire so she certainly had the background to complete these highly detailed scenes of murder and mayhem. She was meticulous in her work and brought this preciseness to her dioramas. These aren't pretty scenes, these are rooms full of blood and death.

She took her experience and in the 1940s and 1950s built these dollhouse scenes based on real crimes. She used her murderous dollhouses to train detectives to solve real crimes. These 18 dioramas are still used today to solves crimes.

The 18 dioramas are built on a scale of 1:12. What is incredible about them is the level of detail put into every room she built. Lee did not overlook any detail, furniture, shoes, pencils, bloodstained rugs, wallpaper, mirrors, dolls, a mouse made from a pussy willow, kitchen utensils, all play a part in this fantastic yet deadly world of crime solving.

The level of detail she learned from working as police officer to solve crimes she brought to creating her nutshell scenes. She constructed three nutshells a year. Lee made each miniature corpse herself, with bisque parts used for German dolls.She painted each face in tones as to indicate how long the person lay there deceased. She painted one doll a crimson pink to indicate carbon monoxide poisoning. She made all the doll clothes herself. She knit stocking with needles the size of straight pins.

Lee used a carpenter friend  who helped her build the rooms. For the interior scenes she used many of the miniature objects she collected from her travels around the world. Kitchen accessories, mirrors, fixtures, shrubs, cars, fabrics all made their way into her scenes. Wallpaper was picked from wallpaper books to reflect the victim's lifestyle. She worked from police reports and photographs and changed things to make the crime harder to solve.

Corinne May Botz's color photographs draw you into the crime scenes and capture every small detail. She portrays Lee's world presenting the dark side of domestic life, unveiling tales of prostitution, alcoholism, and adultery. The accompanying line drawings, specially prepared for this volume, highlight the noteworthy forensic evidence in each case. Botz's introductory essay, which draws on archival research and interviews with Lee's family and police colleagues, presents an incredible portrait of this fascinating woman.

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