The Nutshell Studies: Educational Forensic Dioramas

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Created in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death were dioramas used to train young police officers in the process of crime scene analysis.  Responding to the complaint from these officers that there were too few crimes for them to analyze, Lee used her hobby of creating dioramas to address the problem.  Although every Nutshell had an official solution to the mysterious death, the purpose was not to necessarily have a trainee solve the case. It was more important that officers learn how to observe and analyze the scene using a scientific approach. Even if the correct solution wasn’t determined, presenting a thorough list of evidence analysis was considered a major victory. The surviving 18 dioramas are currently housed at the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s office and are still used for training.  With advance notice, it is possible to view the Nutshell Studies.

I’ve been aware of the Nutshell Studies for quite a while and when I listened to the 99% Invisible podcast (see link below) it dawned on me that the idea of using dioramas to depict crime scenes might have a place in the high school forensics curriculum. Let me tell you what I’m thinking.  In most forensics courses, it’s not uncommon for the teacher to stage a “crime scene” (see Making Your Own Crime Scene) in the early part of the course as a way to provide the class an opportunity to apply what they have learned regarding the steps involved in processing a crime scene.  And I am also aware that as a culminating activity (or even as a final exam)  many teachers tweak this process and have groups of students create their own scene, to be worked and analyzed by the other groups.  Space and time can certainly be some of the limiting factors that impact the ability to pull this off, and so I began to think about whether using this idea of having students create dioramas might present some value as they certainly wouldn’t require the same amount of space. From a differentiated learning perspective, this type of project might be a great fit for the more creative and artistic students in your classes. As with most activities there are clearly many ways to approach and use this and so I thought that I would share the general idea and leave the rest up to you.  If you decide to incorporate this idea into your class, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Happy Sleuthing,



Additional Resources:

99% Invisible

Death in Dioramas

Mental Floss: The Nutshell Studies – How a Wealthy Grandmother Revolutionized Crime Scene Investigation

Nutshell Studies Facebook Page