Text and Photographs by Kristine Thompson
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
I recently visited Baltimore from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As a relatively new Louisianian, I have become increasingly aware of violence in my community. It’s hard not to when I pass billboards off the interstate that read, “Baton Rouge Murder Rate Higher Than Chicago;” and it’s nearly impossible to make it through a local news cycle that doesn’t include a story about someone meeting an untimely, often violent, end.
Both Louisiana and Maryland have taken turns on TV—represented in popular programs that weave dramas and, often, spectacles of death around the harbor or the bayou. Whether we like it or not, these spectacles infect our imaginations and assumptions about particular geographic locations.
My itinerary in Baltimore included many memorable places, but it was Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) that resonated the most with me. The OCME is the state agency tasked with investigating deaths from injury, suicide, homicide, or unusual or suspicious circumstances. I visited the office because I learned that it houses the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death—18 dollhouse-like models, created in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee, the first female member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The models serve as teaching tools for those studying forensic science, but they are also accessible to anyone who makes an appointment to view them.
When I arrived at the office, the policewoman who signed-in before me wrote “autopsy” in the “reason for visit” line. I suddenly felt self-conscious writing “Nutshell Studies” next to my name; it was an admission of my tourist status, revealing that I was there to take in yet another spectacle of death and violence.
What power still exists in spectacles of violence?
Well…I think it depends on where those spectacles are situated.
Ceramic Chest Plates
Bruce Goldfarb, Executive Assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner, arranges appointments and oversees the Nutshell Studies. As he unlocked the room labeled “Pathology Exhibit,” he handed me a flashlight so that I could take a more careful look at the details inside the small houses. On the wall immediately to the right of the door is a plexiglass case full of gunshot wound studies—something I wasn’t expecting to see.
These ceramic chest plates were also a project of Glessner Lee’s—to make visible records of the damage done to the body by specific calibers of guns shot from specific distances. They are all a uniform peach color, with charcoal-like entry wounds and varying amounts of bruising.
The rest of the pathology exhibit room is dominated by the dioramas, set into wood and plexiglass cases. The models are based on composited information from actual crime scenarios that Glessner Lee meticulously crafted on a scale of one inch to one foot. Because the models emphasize how scientific analysis of visual evidence can help solve a crime or lead investigators to the “truth in a nutshell,” every last detail was considered in the making of them: the way a doll victim’s body is positioned, the number of cigarette butts in an ashtray, the letters that accumulate through the mail slot of a seemingly abandoned house, pry marks on a door, bruising patterns on the bodies of victims, blood splatter on wallpaper and in puddles tracked throughout houses, the bundt cake in the oven of a kitchen where a woman apparently committed suicide…
Glessner Lee’s studies are teaching tools, but they are also remarkably intricate sculptures.
As Susan Stewart has noted in her book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, crafting miniatures and dollhouses wasn’t an unfamiliar activity, particularly for upper class women of the early 20th-century. However, the fact that Glessner Lee’s dollhouses contained tableaus of death made them quite unique. What is engrossing about the Nutshell Studies and what continues to make them relevant in our CSI-Wire-True Detective-laden culture is that they lure us in with what is typically an idyllic and playful format—the dollhouse—but the dystopian scenes held within want us to notice things that we might otherwise gloss over. The purpose of these models is not necessarily related to solving a specific crime, but rather sharpening skills of observation and cultivating the ability to pick up on even a single detail that could shift the entire direction of an investigation.
As I finished looking at the Nutshell Studies, I went to thank Bruce Goldfarb and return the flashlight. I found him in an adjacent conference room that surprisingly contained another visual archive—shelves holding objects that illustrate the range in causes of death that an investigator might encounter. He kindly allowed me to spend more time and continue to photograph these new bits of evidence.
What struck me after spending part of the day looking at these objects is how removed they all are from tangible bodies. The gunshot wound studies—representations of the chest removed from the rest of the body—became strangely abstract, constellation-like marks and fissures. The evidence on the shelves with references to anonymous victims began to register a similarly removed feeling for me.
What ultimately gave these objects a new charge was remembering that I was seeing them in a medical examiner’s office. A gradual zooming-out began to happen: from the miniature realm of the Nutshell Studies to the life-size evidence depicted on the conference-room shelves, to the larger social relevance of these materials within the city of Baltimore. There was no escaping the fact that downstairs someone was undergoing an autopsy. A trauma scene was likely going to be scrutinized in the way that Glessner Lee wanted me to scrutinize her houses; evidence would be accumulated to help connect the dots. The other visual information in that building is not hypothetical. It’s not television. It’s not a model. And as the fictional detective and dollhouse-furniture-maker Lester Freamon from The Wire claims: “all the pieces matter.”
Author Kristine Thompson is an artist and Professor of Art at Louisiana State University. Recently, she curated After Life at the Luckman Gallery at California State University, Los Angeles. After Life featured historical and contemporary artwork that examined death, mourning traditions, memorials, and how understandings of these ideas and practices have changed over time. Marcus Civin edited this article for What Weekly. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards.