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The dollhouses of death that changed forensic science

These dollhouses are creepy — and they changed detective work.

Be careful.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

These dollhouses depict hangings, suicides, and murders — and they’re still used to train forensic scientists in detective work.

Florence Glessner Lee’s 19 “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” are collected as part of a rare public exhibition at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. As the above video shows, these incredibly intricate (and sublimely creepy) dioramas are fascinating works of art and forensic science.

You can pick apart each dollhouse for interesting clues (a task historian Erin Bush undertook for her Death in Diorama project), parsing the miniature blood stains and tiny knives for hints as to what happened in the house. Or you can simply appreciate the fascinatingly spooky detail behind every object inside.

Paired with these mysteries is the mystery of the nutshell studies’ creator — Francis Glessner Lee was an heiress who devoted her life to improving forensic science. As a product of her unusual “hobby,” there are two beneficiaries: those who practice forensic science, and the public that can enjoy the unusual art born of one woman’s obsession.

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