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“Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”

Dr. William Hamilton in front of the exhibit.

On Saturday, January 13, Neumann University students were treated to a unique opportunity to view the work of an influential figure in American criminology, Frances Glessner Lee. Often referred to as the “mother of forensic science,” Lee’s groundbreaking approach to criminal investigation transformed the field of police work in the United States.

Lee’s training in numerous artisan techniques and interest in police work led her to develop the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” crime scenes in miniature of such exquisite detail that they are still in active use by police training programs to teach novice detectives careful modes of forensic analysis. The actual solutions remain a closely guarded secret for this reason, Lee’s work proving so influential that she was awarded the rank of police captain.

Her legacy is also noteworthy in challenging gender assumptions about women in police work, and also her techniques in constructing the Nutshells that encouraged investigators to consider the ways that women’s and minority perspectives were frequently overlooked in criminal investigation. Her constructions are genuine works of art, and have inspired an enthusiastic audience response at the Renwick Gallery that frequently threatens to overwhelm the available visitor capacity of the museum.

This trip, initiated by English and Criminal Justice faculty working in concert, emerged from numerous collaborative initiatives. The Honors Program has for the past several years run paired seminars in which students satisfy two core requirements simultaneously in a class focused upon a shared theme. The recent Honors Criminal Psychology and Literature course, run by Doctors Colleen McDonough of the Psychology program and William Hamilton of the English program, included initial trips for students to visit the Nutshells when they were formerly housed in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland. Several Honors students attended these prior excursions, and also came to the current exhibit.

Bruce Goldfarb, Special Assistant at this office and curator of the Nutshells, informed the Neumann faculty of this upcoming Smithsonian exhibition and was kind enough to join the tour group and give his own background experience of these dioramas. This current excursion, funded with the assistance of Dean Alfred Mueller of the Division of Arts & Sciences, began via a scholarly collaboration between Doctors Leanne Havis of the Criminal Justice program and William Hamilton of the English program. They applied for a mini-grant through the Student Activities Office whose financial support allowed for the hiring of a tour bus, also paying for lunch for all attendees.

Doctors Havis and Hamilton have also incorporated additional opportunities to engage with the Nutshells’ legacy in current spring 2018 term Criminal Justice and English classes. This trip proved such a success that these faculty are considering additional collaborative activities for future semesters.