The Nutshell Experience

Chelsea J Pfohl

The Nutshell Experience brings those interested in forensic pathology into Frances Glessner Lee’s “Nutshell Studies” in Virtual Reality. The dollhouse of unexplained death will teach users medical science based observation techniques still studied by detectives and medical examiners today. The VR experience puts users in the dollhouses for the first time!


Frances Glessner Lee’s masterpiece “the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” have remained a sought after training tool for detectives, forensic pathologists and medical examiners since their creation in the 1940s. Beyond the enduring relevance of the practical observation techniques they teach, these 18 intricately detailed dollhouse crime scenes have drawn visitors the likes of John Waters, David Byrne, set designers, scholars, true crime enthusiasts and more due to the intense artistry and attention to detail in their design and the mysterious enigma of the woman behind the dollhouses. The Nutshell Experience brings Frances Glessner Lee’s work into virtual reality, allowing them to be observed, marveled at and experienced on a 1:1 scale for the first time in a VR Headset.

To understand the importance of the Nutshell Studies and the value of their adaptation to virtual reality is to understand Frances Glessner Lee herself. Lee was an heiress born in Chicago in 1878 to an extremely wealthy family that very much expected Lee to fall into her role in the patriarchal structure of early 20th century domesticity. She dreamed of studying medicine or law, but her parents believed that “a lady didn’t go to school,” and wouldn’t allow her to further her education. When she met George Burgess Magrath – an acquaintance of her brother’s through Harvard and the future medical examiner in Boston – he enthralled her with tales of unexplained and often violent death that he had consulted on for police and helped solve. Before SVU or CSI, Lee was getting Magrath's behind the scene play-by-play of his role in homicide investigations. She learned the ins and outs of the medico-legal process behind death investigation and of the faults in the coroner/medical examiner system. Lee was interested in integrating the medical examiner’s needs when processing of a death scene and the time sensitive nature of the police investigation to be more effective. After her fathers death, Lee’s inheritance allowed her the freedom to explore her interests and she founded the Harvard Associates in Police Science Seminar in 1945. The seminar recently celebrated it's 70th anniversary.

The Nutshell Experience is a virtual reality application designed in Unity that simulates the experience of visiting the Nutshell Studies and allows users to interact with the dollhouses on a much more intimate setting than viewing them through a glass case. Users can interact with objects in the scene, collect relevant clues in an inventory and learn the ropes like a real detective. There are 2 modes of interaction: Exhibition and Seminar. Exhibition mode focuses primarily on the history of the dollhouses, including their legacy in the history of forensic pathology as well as details on the woman behind their creation and her contributions to the field of death investigation. Seminar mode presents the dollhouses exactly as they are presented in the seminars created by Frances Glessner Lee in 1945, the Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS). The purpose of seminar mode is for the application to be utilized as a training tool as they were intended and as they are still actively used to this day.



Thesis Presentation Video