Terrible Enigmas: Educational simulation in The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

A/Prof. Scott Beattie1

1CQ University, Melbourne, Australia

“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”

Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (1989)

Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) was an innovator in forensic education and her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, a series of 18 detailed miniature diorama death scenes  are relentless in their observation of detail and refusal to grant closure of a straightforward solution. While the custodians of the dioramas in the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office claim to possess secret solutions to some, there is no evidence that Lee created these or ever intended this to happen.  On the contrary, her whole design ethos was built around the fundamental unreliability of knowledge and the impossibility of knowing truth.

Her approach was and is at odds with many educational ideals that place the teacher (or institution) as the privileged heliocentric dispenser of truth.   Lee’s approach on the other hand, a stark product of her own obdurateness, is one that suits the contemporary world of unsettled truths and contested reality.   Not content with merely preparing students for a complex professional environment she also foresaw one in which they would never know if their theories are ultimately correct.

Many miscarriages of justice hinge on police believing they know who is guilty and structuring (or manufacturing) evidence to fit their theories rather than the other way around.   Simulations such as Lee’s, if used correctly, provide tools for education and problem solving that refuse to accept reductionism.  Beyond being the macabre curiosity they are often presented as, Lees’ nutshells provide a way of understanding the forensic process that goes beyond the simplistic and reductive, embracing ambiguity and uncertainty and highlighting the importance of ethical professional decision making.


Bio to come


Aug 26 2021


8:00 am - 6:00 pm