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Frances Glessner Lee

Here's how mini crime scenes changed the way forensic scientists are trained

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Frances Glessner Lee was the master of crime scene investigation long before anyone was kicking back to watch CSI on primetime.

In the 1940s, Lee masterfully brought crafts to the male-dominated field of police investigation through her "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," which is a collection of miniature crime scenes. In doing so, she gained notoriety as the "mother of forensic science."

"I think what was so incredible about Frances Glessner Lee's contribution to the forensic study is that it was something that nobody else ever would have thought of in that profession," said Nora Atkinson, curator at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum where the mini crime scenes are being displayed.

Atkinson explained that Lee, who was a talented artist, simply used the crafting skills she learned growing up to offer the perfect solution to a problem in her field.

"It's a phenomenal fusion between the science of it, that she was not allowed to be involved in for so many years, and bringing the craft that this male population never would have dreamed of, to make that into something new that was essentially like virtual reality for it's time period," Atkinson explained.

At the time, there was very little training for investigators, which meant evidence was often mishandled or simply overlooked, the Smithsonian noted in a press release.

Lee, who helped found the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University, worked with her colleagues to develop methods to help train investigators to handle evidence and ultimately point to a potential cause of death.

"She [Lee] was a huge advocate of the medical examiner system versus the coroner system, which was training investigators to have an eye for those medical causes of death but also the circumstances around," Atkinson said.

Ultimately, Atkinson explained, Lee was teaching people to "take note of tiny little things." It was through her 20 “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” dioramas that she did just that.

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In fact, 19 of her surviving mini crime scenes are still used to train investigators to this day.

Lee's dioramas will be displayed in an exhibit entitled, "Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," at the Renwick Gallery from Oct. 20 until Jan. 28.

"One of the things that we have really advocated for here at Renwick is the idea that objects help us learn how to see the world around us and I think that's very important," Atkinson said. "I think that's one of the things that Frances obviously was most interested in, was in teaching people how to be careful observers and how to care about those little details and understand something about the world around them through those."

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