Interiors: Of Dolls & Murder

Last year around this time I mentioned the a book about the work of Frances Glessner Lee called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. A documentary on the same subject has just emerged, and no wonder, as the fascinating vignettes  depicting crime scenes created by Frances Glessner Lee in the early 20th century are truly compelling, both for their function as small studies in crime and for their macabre quality. These dollhouses are all work and no play, a deadly serious business, and still in use today for training detectives, surprisingly enough. Frances Glessner Lee’s attention to detail, her obsession with getting everything just right, was not only the hallmark of a serious craftsperson, it also allowed her to create timeless pieces that will, sadly, always offer a story to tell, no matter the technological advances we make when it comes to catching murderers.

Check out the link to the documentary here: Of Dolls & Murder. And here’s a link to more information on the Studies themselves from a book by Erin Hooper Bush — well worth a look.

Interiors: A Tiny Death

The world consists of two types of people: those who insist there are two types of people and the rest of us.  But if you’re in the first category, you probably also believe that among these two types of people are 1) normal people and, 2) Dollhouse People.  The latter group is made up of grown-ups who spend thousands of hours of their fast-fleeting lives constructing miniature tableaux, usually of the most boring domestic events imaginable:  Tiny houses meticulously fitted out so that the little doll father can read a newspaper while leaning awkwardly against a little couch, the mother doll can stand helplessly in the kitchen contemplating her stackable bowls and miniature rolling pin, and the doll children can sit amongst their picturesque 19th-century toys: a bunch of blocks, a rocking horse, a tiny drum.  They all look bored, and who can blame them?  Like a John Cheever novel just waiting to happen.

But just to further puncture the “there are two kinds of people in the world” trope, even among Dollhouse People many, many strains exist.  For instance, there are people, like me, who find the contemplation of the world of miniatures endlessly fascinating, and not as a celebration of middle class domesticity.  Rather, it’s the slightly Gothic aspect of the whole enterprise that compels me, again and again, to seek out miniatures, to go to my studio and stare at the complete disarray that is my very own second-hand dollhouse, and think about things like crack dens and the people who live in them.  Maybe it’s the partially pulled wallpaper, the filth, the broken furniture.  But somehow I think my mess of a dollhouse is much more representative of the human experience than the award-winning specimen found at doll shows.

I read a story last week in the Venerable New York Times about the photographer CorrineMay Botz’s latest book featuring unconventional interiors, this time the homes of hoarders, another fascinating topic but one I’ll save for another day.  Reading about Corrine Botz led me to discover a different book of photogaphs she published, this one documenting the work of Francine Glessner Lee, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.  (I should just quit writing after providing the title, as it alone is compelling enough to encourage you to look into the book without my help.)  Francine Glessner Lee was a criminal investigator who, in the 1940s, created crime scenes in minature for academic purposes.  Imagine all the crafty skills one would need to summon for such a task: the sewing, the gluing, the faux blood-making.  About the book:

This fascinating and macabre volume offers readers an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of a master criminal investigator. Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy grandmother, founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936 and was later appointed captain in the New Hampshire police. In the 1940s she built dollhouse crime scenes based on real cases in order to train detectives to assess visual evidence. Still used in forensic training today, the eighteen Nutshell dioramas, on a scale of 1:12, display an astounding level of detail: tiny pencils write, window shades move, whistles blow, and clues to the crime scene are revealed to those who study them carefully. Corrine Botz’s lush color photographs lure viewers into every crevice of Frances Lee’s models and breathe life into these deadly miniatures, which represent the dark side of domestic life, unveiling tales of prostitution, alcoholism and adultry. Botz’s introductory essay, which draws on archival research and interviews with Lee’s family and police colleagues, present a captivating portrait of the creator of these amazing miniatures.

Interiors, long considered the province of bored housewives and their excitable decorators, are, as anyone who has watched a few episodes of Law & Order or read an Agatha Christie novel knows, veritable hotbeds of the darker aspects of human nature.  The real world of miniatures – no, it doesn’t have to be an oxymoron – recognizes this fact and is not intent on creating a perfect world, but rather, a perfectly imperfect world.  A world of tiny deaths, depicted on a scale of 1:12.

Corrine Botz, photographed by Ethan Hill for the NY Times

For further exploration:

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death