The two rooms in the Renwick Gallery are dimly lit and packed with people, mostly my age and younger, scurrying from one window to the next to shine flashlights through the pane of glass separating these viewers from the gruesome scene on view. The scenes are miniatures, dioramas of unexplained death created more than 60 years ago by Frances Glessner Lee, the founder of forensic science. They’re on display in an art gallery, and in press clippings the curators have tried to emphasize that these are artworks made by a woman using a feminine craft to subvert gender norms (women don’t solve crimes), but as far as I can tell, the visitors huddled around the dioramas are really only interested in solving the mysteries before them.
I do my best to wait patiently as groups of twos and threes block the view of a diorama for five or six minutes so they can point the flashlight at likely clues. They sweep over the meticulous detail in the handmade tiny rocking chair and the mini reproductions of actual newspapers from the 1940s; they flash the light across scaled-down, hand-knit blankets in favor of fake blood. As museum attendees they disregard the whole point of this exhibition—Frances Glessner Lee changed the way people evaluate crime scenes by teaching gumshoes to observe each of these dioramas for 90 minutes at a time, and each of these tiny scenes is carefully constructed, at a cost comparable to building a house at the time—and they focus on finding a solution.
I want to elbow my way past the amateur sleuths and station myself in front of each diorama and drink in all the details with the kind of serious reverence France Glessner Lee deserves. This is because I’m a snob: I generally hate art museums because they never give enough (I think) context for the art on display, and I have cultivated an interest in Frances Glessner Lee’s legacy since I interned almost a decade ago at the house-museum in Chicago where she grew up. The minute I glimpsed her childhood portrait, the dare-you-to-hold-me-back smirk on her face, I was hooked. I finally wrote about her for Lady Science in September, a few weeks before this exhibition opened.
As we climbed the step up to the Renwick, I was struck with a feeling I’ve had only a handful of times before. Last year, when I visited the Morgan Library’s exhibition on Charlotte Bronte, I wandered a gallery of Bronte’s juvenilia, early drafts of Jane Eyre, her writing desk, her dress, in a state of shock that made me grateful I was encountering my literary icon, the guardian angel of my writing life, alone. And several years before that, we saw a production of “The Music Man” at the Kennedy Center over Thanksgiving weekend, with Shirley Jones in a different role than the one she played in the film version. Afterwards, we stood in line for her autograph and I was so star-struck by this person who embodied Marion the Librarian, the woman I’d always aspired to be, that I said literally nothing to her as she autographed the CD I purchased for her to sign, so that she kept glancing at Jen, who stood at a distance to capture the landmark, extremely awkward, moment on camera. My failure to express myself to Shirley Jones haunted me when we met Lydia Davis a few years later, when I mustered a few token sentences as well as the unspoken gratitude that so many of my heroes are dead.
But here’s what I would have said to Frances Glessner Lee, if she were still living. Here’s what I whispered into the darkness surrounding the dioramas that are still used today to train law enforcement on the art of observation: Thank you for saying yes when people told you no. Thank you for using the privilege of your birth to champion science and evidence for the good of people less fortunate than you. Thank you for taking a tiny world, and making it that much bigger.