Pinned to blue boards like an ornate insect collection, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's pins are on display at the Mint Museum in Uptown Charlotte now through September 23. The collection is timed to give Democratic National Convention attendees a taste of the political power of jewelry.
When Madeleine Albright talks about her pins, she tends to start her sentences with the phrase, "Well what happened was--." Each pin is a start to a story from her time as Ambassador to the UN and U.S. secretary of state under President Clinton. It began in 1994 when Saddam Hussein called her a serpent in the Iraqi press following comments she made on Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. So she decided to wear a snake pin to their next meeting. When journalists zoomed in on the pin, she thought, "This could be the start of something."
Albright says the idea was inspired by the famous comment by President George H. W. Bush "Read my lips: no new taxes."
"So, I said, 'Read my pins,'" says Albright. There are 200 pins in the exhibit. Most of them are just costume jewelry she wore to suit her diplomatic mood: Turtles for the slow pace of Middle East peace talks, but beautiful butterflies when talks went well.
Albright notes her pins got progressively larger, "partially because pins make holes in your clothes so I had to keep covering up whatever hole was there." In addition to being large, the pins are girly. And as the first female U.S. Secretary of State, Albright didn't shy away from her femininity. She was known for giving foreign diplomats hugs. Apparently the South Korean Foreign Minister liked that and made a comment that eventually got back to Albright through a journalist.
The South Korean official had reportedly remarked at a dinner that he loved meeting with Secretary Albright: "I'm this tired old man. She's full of vim and vigor, and when I embrace her she has very firm breasts." The journalist asked Albright for comment and her reply was, "Well I have to have something to put those pins on."
Diplomats began to keep an eye out for Albright's pins, not because of where they rested, but because they knew they'd be saying something important. Albright points to a pin shaped like an arrow which she wore when negotiating an anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia's former Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov. She says he asked if her pin was one of the U.S.'s interceptors. Albright responded, "Yes, and we make them very small and it's time to negotiate."
Albright was not afraid to make a statement with her pins. She dared to show up to a Moscow Summit with Vladmir Putin wearing a pin of the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys. When Cubans shot down an unarmed American plane she turned her blue bird pin upside down. Albright says eventually it became hard to not wear a pin, "Now what's happened is that we've created bit of a monster, because when I don't wear a pin like when I'm exercising people will say: why don't you have a pin on?"
So Albright and curators from the New York Art and Design Museum took all of her pins out of their shoeboxes in Albright's closet and spread them out on a white sheet on her bed. She says it looked like an abstract painting. But they didn't choose pins for their beauty the way curators pick sculptures. They chose them for their stories.
"I wanted to make foreign policy less foreign and have people get a sense about why something happened, what's the story behind it," says Albright. "Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection" is on display June 30 - September 23 at the Mint Museum Uptown.