Our Forensics: Anatomy of Crime exhibition closes on 21 June 2015. One of the more haunting pieces you’ll find on display is Jenny Holzer’s Lustmord, offering unsettling perspectives on sexual violence. Taryn Cain explains the context of this piece.

Trigger warning: this post contains mentions of sexual violence.

The Bosnian war began in 1992. Marshal Tito, who’d led Yugoslavia from the end of WW1, had died in 1980, destabilising the relationships between the different ethnic groups. A referendum for Bosnia’s independence was held in 1992 which the majority of Bosnians supported; unfortunately the Bosnian Serbs had a different future for their country in mind. Continue reading

Self Evidence

Forensics: The anatomy of crime closes 21 June. Until then, visitors to Wellcome Collection are asked to respond to the forensics principle “every contact leaves a trace” by putting their personal belongings in an evidence bag and photographing them, to explore how a sense of identity can be evidenced. Jessica Hughes takes a look at how personal belongings have previously been used as conduits of self.

What does it feel like to hand over your most treasured possession and then walk away?

When people in the past were sick or facing some kind of personal crisis, they often went straight to their local sanctuary to make an offering to the deity. Sometimes this gift was a specially-made object, like a statuette or a model of the sick body part, but often it was one of their own personal belongings – maybe a necklace or a pair of earrings; a favourite cup; a childhood toy.

Velvet ribbon votive offering found tied to rushes growing around a holy well.

Velvet ribbon votive offering found tied to rushes growing around a holy well.

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Paris Morgue

Our Forensics: Anatomy of Crime exhibition closes on 21 June 2015. The show is split into five sections, one of which is “the morgue”. The modern morgue, or mortuary, was established as a dedicated building in the 19th century. Taryn Cain tells us about La Morgue, an unlikely public attraction in 1800s Paris.

If you were visiting Paris today, you’d probably find yourself walking past the Love Padlocks on the Pont des Arts, walking through Notre Dame and a mile on from there you’d be at the Louvre. If you were in Paris in the 1880s, there would be an altogether different attraction that you would almost certainly have found yourself in. The “only free theatre in Paris”, otherwise known as the La Morgue.

The morgue first opened its doors to the public in 1804 on Ile de la Cite, before moving to a new and larger building behind Notre Dame in 1864, where a memorial now sits. The location of the morgue was no accident: being in the epicentre of Paris and right next to the Seine, the morgue was in a good position to receive both the dead and the living. Many of the bodies, which were picked up off the streets or fished out of the Seine, were unidentifiable, so the public were ostensibly allowed in to help with their identification.

Street vendors on the Seine in Paris.

Street vendors on the Seine in Paris.

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Nostalgia for the Light

Forensics: the anatomy of crime is on until 21 June 2015. One of the short videos on show in the exhibition is taken from a longer film: Nostalgia for the Lightscreening on Saturday 6 June at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Katherine McAlpine from Royal Museums Greenwich looks at how the film relates to both Forensics and their own exhibition, Unseen.

The Forensics exhibition at Wellcome Collection explores the history, science and art of forensic medicine. It travels from crime scene to courtroom, across centuries and continents, drawing out the stories of victims, suspects and investigators of violent crimes. One of such story is that of the Chilean women who sift through the sand of the Atacama desert searching for evidence of the bodies of their loved ones: political prisoners held in concentration camps run during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Their enduring efforts have equipped them with skills more typically associated with forensic experts. Continue reading

The Murder Bag

Our Forensics: Anatomy of Crime exhibition is on until 21 June 2015. One of the objects you’ll find on display is an equipment case from 1972, used by officers at the scene of a crime to gather evidence. Sarah Mason tells us about the evolution of the so called “Murder Bag”. 

The analysis of the crime scene has been, and continues to be, central to the process of forensic investigation. Most of us are familiar with the image of teams of forensic experts clad in white suits sweeping an area for minuscule clues to trace the perpetrator. It hasn’t always been this way however. Over the last two hundred years, the development of forensic science can be traced through one vital object: the investigators toolkit, or the “Murder Bag”.


A “Murder Bag”.

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The tell-tale fly

Most of us would rather not think about what happens to our bodies after death. But that breakdown gives birth to new life in unexpected ways, writes Mo Costandi in this week’s Mosaic article.

Here we publish a related post about what a fly can tell us about time of death as Mo looks at the emerging field of forensic entomology.

This article was first published in Mosaic. It is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

We still know very little about the insect species that colonise a cadaver. But the latest published study from Sibyl Bucheli’s lab at Sam Houston State University, Texas, suggests they are far more diverse than we had previously imagined.

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Finding the Truth in a Nutshell

We wrote about Frances Glessner Lee and her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” in a previous postErin N. Bush got the chance to visit the eighteen original Nutshells and has turned her photos of some of them into fascinating resource exploring these “dolls’ houses of death”. Erin tells us more.

You do not need forensic training to find an outlier amidst the register of pioneers in forensic science. The usual suspects – Cesare Lombroso, Alphonse Bertillon, Francis Galton, Mathieu Orfila, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler – were all men of scientific training or veterans of police work. Then there was Frances Glessner Lee.

A woman. Not just any woman, but the daughter of industrial fortune. Forbidden from attending medical school, she contributed to the art and science of detailed forensics-based detection by appropriating a pastime “proper” for a woman of her class and remaking it into a tool of great power. She repurposed a child’s plaything to give new insight into the darkest adult mysteries.

A skilled doll’s house maker, Glessner Lee created the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”: intricate, yet macabre, dolls’ houses depicting the most mysterious of circumstances. They recreated the scenes of possible homicides, accidents and suicides; in modelling them, they taught investigators to notice the smallest of minutia. The Nutshells used miniaturisation to show the outsized significance of tiny details.

She did not make elaborate doll’s houses because they were pretty; she created functional miniatures that were useful for generations of police detectives. It was a very “improper” undertaking for a woman of her standing.

The fact that Glessner Lee subverted gender expectations and dared to participate in a career thought unsuitable for a 1940s woman attracted me to her. I was lucky enough to gain access to the eighteen original Nutshells, kept in Baltimore at the office of Maryland’s Chief Medical Examiner. In his generosity, the examiner gave me free reign to visit and photograph them and I chose four of the most interesting to display in my project, Death in Diorama.


Erin photographing the Nutshells. (Image: Alexa D. Potter)

Erin photographing the Nutshells. (Image: Alexa D. Potter)

Since the dioramas are not open to the public, I thought I could best highlight both their intricacy and Glessner Lee’s attention to detail through a series of macro photographs. They were, after all, meant to be pored over and studied; difficult to do from a distance.

The more I researched Glessner Lee, and how she used these dolls’ houses, the more I began to appreciate the innovation of using a seemingly low-tech approach to forensics training.

Glessner Lee was convinced by criminological theory that crimes could be solved by detailed analysis of visual and material evidence and she drew upon her expertise in creating miniatures to develop dioramas that would help police detectives learn to identify and analyse forensic evidence. Material evidence at any given crime scene is overwhelming. But with the proper knowledge and techniques, she knew, investigators could be trained to identify, collect and analyse that evidence in a systematic fashion. Her point was not to solve the crime in the model, but to observe and notice important details and potential evidence; facts that could affect the investigation.

My favorite Nutshell, entitled, “Unpapered Bedroom,” illustrates this point nicely. It depicts a deceased woman, lying on her back in bed. Personal effects litter the room, every one potential evidence. Glessner Lee designed each one and placed it in its final position in the scene. This meant crafting the mundane, but also the out-of-place; if you lift up the pillow next to the body, you will find lipstick marks on the underside of the linen. It is a detail that may seem insignificant. But because women rarely go to bed wearing their makeup, it has huge implications.

Forensic science, by its very nature, is based on innovation and technology. Even in its nascent years, fingerprinting, toxicology, Bertillon identification and mug shots relied on and spawned other incredible advancements in forensic technology. What, then, is the innovation in a doll’s house?

Glessner Lee recognised that policemen needed a way to learn and practice forensic detection. Thus, the Nutshells provided a heuristic approach to training, which allowed detectives to investigate crime scenes with little risk of contaminating the scene. In the same way that dolls socialised little girls into motherhood, these dolls’ houses taught both hardened and new homicide detectives to be more attentive to the details at a crime scene.

What Glessner Lee produced may be the size of a doll’s house, but stature is no indication of significance. In our high-tech world of luminol, DNA, computer modeling, and CSI, “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” seem like low-tech forensic science. Yet, their importance can still be felt.

Twice a year, the Nutshells are put to work at the Harvard Associates in Police Science training seminars. Seven decades after Frances Glessner Lee carefully painted and placed a quarter-inch pillow with a centimetre-long lipstick stain, the next generation of homicide detectives still examines them and learns how to find the truth in a Nutshell.

Erin is a doctoral student at George Mason University studying United States history with a focus on crime, women and Gender Studies, and digital history.

Visit our Forensics exhibition for the chance to see one of Glessner Lee’s curious Nuthsells.

Death in a nutshell

Our Forensics exhibition features an example of Frances Glessner Lee’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, small models still used to train police investigators today. Taryn Cain tells us more about these macabre “dolls’ houses of death” and the woman who made them. 

Little girl cleans her dolls house.

Little girl cleans her dolls house.

Dolls have been around for a long time. In fact, they are one of the most ancient toys known, with the oldest found being around 35,000 years old. When we think of dolls today we generally think of children playing with them, even though they have been used by both adults and children throughout history. Due to their resemblance to our own image, dolls have regularly been imbued with magical powers, religious significance and protective qualities.

Where you have dolls, doll houses soon follow, with the first modern doll house appearing almost 500 years ago. These houses cost more than your average wage per week and so were exclusively owned by wealthy adults. By the 19th century, parents were beginning to give their daughters grandiose doll houses, complete with furnishings and servants, in order to educate them in household management.


Who isn’t scared of a ventriloquist’s doll?


Not everyone loves dolls, however. Where most of us are comfortable seeing faces in clouds or believing our cars have a personality (a process called anthropomorphism), some of us are terrified by this. Automatonophobia is the irrational fear of things which resemble, but aren’t, humans. This includes clowns, ventriloquist dummies and dolls. It’s not surprising then that all three began appearing in spooky children’s stories and horror films of the 20th century.

One 20th century woman who saw doll houses not as innocent places of play, but as macabre scenes of death, was Frances Glessner Lee. Born into wealth in 1878, Frances grew up in a house so beloved by her parents, that her father even wrote a book on it. Approaching adulthood, young Frances dreamed of studying medicine or nursing, a dream denied by her controlling and conservative father. Instead she was trained in domestic duties, such as knitting, interior design, metal work and painting.

Frances Glessner Lee working on one of the nutshells.

Frances Glessner Lee working on one of the nutshells.

In the early 1900s Frances was charmed by a man brought home one holiday by her brother, who then remained her friend for the rest of her life. That man, George Burgess Magrath, was one of the first pioneers in “legal medicine”; what we now know as forensics.

For most of her adult life Frances lived like a good upper class woman should: she got married, ran a household, raised three children, did her parents’ bidding and volunteered to help sailors during the war. In 1936 her father died and suddenly Frances was free to follow her own ambitions. After a conversation with her friend Magrath, Frances donated $250,000 to Harvard in order to set up The Department of Legal Medicine and continued to fund its development for the rest of her life.

One of Frances' nutshells.

One of Frances’ nutshells. Kitchen (Room From Afar) (c) Image courtesy of Corinne May Botz and Benrubi Gallery.

Back then, death wasn’t the science it is now: many coroners had no legal training, police officers would unknowingly contaminate crime scenes and people were literally getting away with murder. The new Legal Medicine department at Harvard sought to change that by training their students to be medical examiners. They also held a bi-annual week long seminar on Legal Medicine, funded by Frances, in which the invited experts and detectives would eat off $8,000 china plates.

It was from these seminars that the Nutshell Studies were born: 20 tiny houses, one inch to one foot, each representing a real world scenario recreated in miniature form. To complete each house Frances would attend crime scenes, visit morgues and attend autopsies. She had learned from her studies in forensics that officers often struggled to tell the difference between murder, a suicide or an accidental death, so each of her scenes was a mystery. It was up to the officers to seek tiny clues which could clear or convict a potential criminal.

Each house was made with incredible attention to detail. Windows really opened, keys turned in locks and hand-rolled tiny cigarettes lay on tables. The dead themselves were painted with mottled skin, bullet wounds and slit throats. Frances’ victims were all poor to middle class, white and mostly female.

One house, now missing, showed a woman sweeping up the evidence. Another unfinished house shows a man dead, possibly from alcohol poisoning, on his sofa. One set in a parlour shows a young girl bludgeoned to death next to a packet of rotting meat. Another shows a woman dead in a bath with no obvious signs of a struggle. A couple and their baby are all found dead in their beds in another house, the walls and floor splattered with blood. Another unlucky victim is dead in his bed inside a fire-ravaged cabin. Each gory domestic scene contains a secret twist to test the officers’ observational skills.

The nutshell houses all took months to create and were built using carpentry, a magnifying glass, purchased doll house furniture and jewellery/dental tools. Frances would hand-sew all the dolls clothing herself using tiny straight pins. Each house ultimately cost as much as a real life home at the time and only three could be produced per year.

Frances Glessner Lee making some last minute adjustments to one of her nutshells.

Frances Glessner Lee making some last minute adjustments to one of her nutshells.

Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962 and the Department of Legal Medicine in Harvard closed in 1966, when the majority of the houses were moved to the Medical Examiner’s office at the Baltimore city morgue, where they have lived ever since. For a long time they were allowed to fall into disrepair until 1992, when a $50,000 grant was given for their restoration.

Those 18 houses in Baltimore are still in use today. The one we currently have on display in our Forensics exhibition is unfinished; it’s the one Frances was working on at the time of her death. It found a home at the Bethlehem Heritage Society in New Hampshire, who have temporarily loaned it to Wellcome Collection.

You can explore the nutshells further here.

Corinne May Botz’s large scale portraits of the nutshells are on display in our Forensics exhibition.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

#Shelfies and Sexology

The Wellcome Trust offers recent graduates the opportunity to help shape the future of science-related research, education and arts in their Graduate Development Programme. One of our grads, Emily Pritchard, is coming to the end of her six month rotation at Wellcome Collection and tells us about the variety of projects she’s been involved in.

If someone asked you what stood out most in the first week of your new job in a new city and as a new graduate, a single phone call to IT probably wouldn’t make the cut. Then again, not everyone has to call IT and request them to remove the words “sex”, “pornography” and “penis” from your blocked search terms. This would be only one of the many phone calls IT would receive from me, but it is certainly one that stands out.

This incident marked the beginning of a whirlwind introduction to daily life at Wellcome Collection. Over the past five months I’ve worked across two departments on youth projects, the Wellcome Book Prize, Twitter accounts, websites, books and six exhibitions, including The Institute of Sexology and Forensics.

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Caught on camera

Forensics: The anatomy of crime opens at Wellcome Collection next month. To whet your appetite for this exploration of the history, science and art of forensic medicine, Holly Story introduces us to an early technique for identifying criminals. Read it carefully to win the chance to have your face featured in a new game, Criminel, inspired by the exhibition. See below for details.

Forensics: The anatomy of crime

Forensics: The anatomy of crime, at Wellcome Collection 26 February until 21 June.

In an age when 360 degree surveillance is an unremarkable reality of our day to day lives, it is hard to imagine a time when to make a record of someone’s face you needed an artistic hand or a vivid imagination. But before the advent of photography, the faces of ordinary citizens were not often preserved on paper. Although there were skilful portrait artists, portraits were costly, the prerogative of the wealthy and the ruling classes and accuracy was not always the artist’s top priority. If you had not seen a person with your own eyes, then you had to rely on someone else’s unreliable reports of their appearance, their distinctive features or remarkable complexion to tell you what they looked like.

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