From lizards and snakes to mushrooms and monkeys, from antique eagles to homemade hearts, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s collection of pins is on display at Wellesley College.
The exhibition, “Read My Pins,” has toured the nation and stopped at Albright’s alma mater for a special visit. WGBH spoke with Secretary Albright, famous for her diplomatic usage of brooches and pins, about some of her favorites and the stories behind them.
Pins With a Purpose
It all started during Albright’s time as the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, during sanction talks about Iraq at the end of the Gulf War.
“The sanctions would come up kind of one after another for renewal,” Albright said, “and my instructions were to make sure the sanctions stayed on, which meant that I had to keep repeating all the terrible things that Saddam Hussein had done. So ultimately there was a poem that appeared in the papers in Baghdad, comparing me to many things, but among them an ‘unparalleled serpent’, and I happened to have a snake pin, so I wore it whenever we were talking about Iraq.”
From then on, Albright began to choose pins that reflected the mood of her diplomatic discussions, or sent a message to the leader with whom she was meeting. But sometimes a pin could do something she never expected; like the pin she wore at her swearing-in as Secretary of State.
“It’s an antique pin, and I hadn’t noticed about how difficult the clasp on it was; so I’m there with one hand on the Bible and one hand swearing allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and I see this pin just kind of flapping around, and I know I swore allegiance, but I was also worried that it would fall on the Bible and screw up the whole ceremony,” Albright said.
Sometimes whimsical, sometimes more serious, the pins rapidly became an essential part of Albright’s wardrobe. She understood the power that symbolic images can have, and was never afraid of being bold.
When meeting with then-leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il, Albright elected to wear a large American flag pin. Aware of the strictly enforced requirement that all North Korean citizens wear a pin bearing an image of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung, Albright chose the enormous American pin to make an impression. “I’m standing there next to him with this huge American flag—I think it was its own message.”
A Personal Touch
“Read My Pins” has been touring the country for the past several years; as a result, Secretary Albright has had to adjust to life without her treasured pin collection. But not all of her pins have found their way into the exhibit.
“I have, of course, started a new collection,” she said. “People have given me pins, and I call them my pity pins, because people feel sorry! And they’re fun pins, but they don’t have the great stories.”
So of all these famous and expensive pins, each with a story more fascinating than the last, which is Albright’s favorite? A ceramic heart, hand-crafted by her then-five-year-old daughter.
“I have had that pin now probably for forty years,” she said with a smile. “Unfortunately I haven’t had it recently, because it’s been in the show. But I wore it every Valentine’s Day. It’s a fun pin, and it’s pretty, and it is so simple, obviously, but carries an awful lot of meaning.”
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