Teaching and doing digital history.

My Project and My Exploration of the World of Victorian Color

(alternatively titled: Why Literal Isn’t Always a Good Thing)

I spent the evening with Dreamweaver and my brand new desktop app ColorSchemer Studio. Colorschemer is amazing and magical and dangerous. It’s one of those slick desktop color wheels that allows you look for color and find associated and related color families. For someone who isn’t totally confident in her ability to pick related or a family of colors, it’s a Godsend. It’s also very, very dangerous.

Let me back up. I’m a first-year PhD student. I received my Masters from GMU back in 2005. I entered the program about halfway through my required coursework, something that has been great and a bit scary, as I’m farther along than I realized. I still have some major hoops to jump through, but I’m at the point where I need to start solidifying a dissertation research idea.

My general interests are in 19th Century crime and gender. I’m avidly looking for interesting ways that gender issues and crime intersect. As such, a friend turned me on to the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which are a series of miniature doll houses recreating complicated crime scenes. I’m 95% sure this is going to be the topic of my final project for class.

They were meticulously made in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy Chicago heiress with a passion for forensic medicine and Sherlock Holmes. She supported forensics and in the ’30s donated enough money to start a special program at Harvard Medical School, which included annual seminars led by Lee for police investigators. These seminars lasted a week and each attendee was given classes on proper investigation techniques, some classes included the use of these miniatures as teaching tools. The week culminated with a grandiose dinner at the Ritz Carlton served on $8000 china.

The doll houses alone are really interesting. So much so that a photographer published a beautiful book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death and they feature prominently in an upcoming documentary film, Of Dolls and Murder.

I haven’t seen the movie, but the book, which an interesting collection of photographs of the miniatures and an impressive collection of factual research and interviews about Lee herself, raises several very interesting historical questions. Namely, how did this woman, a wealthy heiress foray into the work of homicide investigation and forensics? And how on Earth, given that she had only tangential experience with these topics through friendships with other people (and, apparently, a love of Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason) did police forces and their respective captains take her seriously as someone who should be teaching these seminars? She was not a policewoman. Did these policemen just play along because she was older and wealthy enough to exert influence over institutions as grand as Harvard Medical School? Were they just playing along with an eccentric woman’s parlor games? Did these doll houses actually help them do their jobs better?

Obviously, I can’t answer all of these questions in one semester? But maybe I can find out a little bit about how the doll houses were used and what they meant to the policemen at the time.

These miniatures now live at the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s Office and I have requested access to photograph four of the eighteen remaining models for my project. I’m hoping to supplement the photos with some information about Lee and forensics in general. The world of miniatures also looms large as these certainly were a product of a specific time and interest in recreating important scenes in miniature.

So, because I can be a little too literal for my own good, I ventured into my fancy new color picker toy and thought I’d play with a Victorian doll house theme. I found all the “Victorian” colors in the wheel. Then I set about playing with my css template and tiled images. And I ended up with a Victorian doll house (on crack?).

Seriously.
My first portfolio attempt

My husband called it “unbelievably distracting.” And he’s not wrong. Because of the busy-ness of the tile, your eyes go back and forth between the roofing and never really land on the center content part.

So needless to say, I have a lot of work to do. However, the bright side of this entire exercise is that I successfully uploaded the site and the images. So I’ll call that progress and start over tomorrow.
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If anyone happens to be interested, they sell ColorSchemer Studio licenses for about $49 retail. If you are interested, there are student discounts available.

Comments

  1. I love the greens and blues that you are using but the background tile is definitely distracting. With your fabulous colorwheel tool is there another solid color that is complimentary to the main colors that’s a little muted to use in the background?

  2. That’s a good idea. I was also thinking of trying to run the original image through Photoshop to see if I can play with the transparency a little to make it a bit more subtle.

  3. As you well know, I love this project. I think that the portrayals you’ve mentioned above have taken a decidedly artistic view of the dioramas, as opposed to a scientific view. What was her contribution to forensic science, if any, and how were the dioramas perceived at the time? Now they seem an item for a Wunderkammer, but what did police professionals and criminologists think of them when they were made? You might want to look at this 2006 National Library of Medicine on forensic science: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/visibleproofs/index.html, which included the dioramas.

    • Absolutely, these are great questions and ones that now have me very curious. Additionally, the contact at the ME’s office in Maryland stated that these were never intended to be treated as “whodunits”, but instead as training tools to teach the police the power of detailed observation. Miniatures as training tools for adults is another area of interested raised by these. I’ll check out the resource.. thanks Alexa!

  4. Erin — this is a great great project! How completely appropriate for digital scholarship AND just scholarship in general. And given what you said the ME’s office said these were for, it reminds us that every profession needs its scenarios/play-acting/drills for its students to acquire the skills they need without necessarily harming themselves or anyone else. I’m thinking first and foremost of medical models (remember the skeletons in every highschool biology class) but also heads with fake hair for beauticians, “controlled” fires for firefighters, etc., etc. Its an element of the history of professional education that I’m sure is ripe for study. Congrats.

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