Madeleine Albright had been ambassador to the United Nations for several years when relations with the Iraqi government soured. In response to her criticism of Saddam Hussein’s refusal to comply with UN sanctions, Hussein published a poem calling her an “unparalleled serpent.”
So Albright decided to make a point. At her next meeting with Iraqi officials, Albright wore a pin of a snake wrapped around a branch.
It would be the first of many occasions when the former ambassador and secretary of state would use her beloved pin collection as a diplomatic device to express her feelings about particular world affairs.
“It’s a very good tool,” said Albright, who led a tour at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College (her alma mater) Tuesday to celebrate the opening of her “Read My Pins” exhibition. “The whole point of the collection isn’t to show I’m inquisitive, but also to be able to talk about foreign policy.”
There are about a dozen display cases that make up “Read My Pins,” each filled with several pins and accompanying photographs of Albright, wearing the jewelry, at meetings with world leaders. A yellow enamel costume bee pin sits alongside a photograph of Albright leaning toward former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. The flying insect pin is on the shoulder of her yellow suit jacket.
“He was so slow [in moving the peace process along] that I made it very clear there’d be a sting if there wasn’t movement,” Albright said.
The “Read My Pins” exhibition has become something of a retirement gig for the former diplomat, now 77. Its debut in September 2009 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York coincided with the release of a book with the same title.
“In many ways, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this. I wanted to be taken seriously,” she said, adding that she wrote two memoirs before agreeing to share the story of her jewelry. “I’m delighted how popular the show is.”
Its arrival at Wellesley dovetailed with her 55th reunion — and several pins from her college years including the school’s alumnae leaf pin and the fraternity pin she got from her future husband, Joe.
“I was in heaven — but also in trouble, because I had another boyfriend, who knew nothing about Joe,” she wrote in the book. “Until I summoned the courage to break old ties, I kept Joe’s pin out of sight, wearing it on my bra instead of my blouse.”
Albright’s affection for the pins endures, and she stopped Tuesday to point out her favorite, a handcrafted ceramic heart one of her daughters made for Valentine’s Day.
Many of the more than 200 pins on display are costume pieces with as much sentimental value as intrinsic value. Albright walked the room briskly, recalling the story of each pin as a mother would her child’s milestones. She pointed to an eagle pin that she bought at Tiny Jewel Box in Washington, D.C., to wear for her 1997 swearing-in ceremony as America’s first female secretary of state.
“It had a complicated clasp,” she said, remembering the pin’s failure to stay closed. “I had one hand on the Bible and I looked down and I see the pin flapping there.”
She also recalled her foreign policy pin faux pas when she wore a three-monkey “Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” set to a summer summit with Vladimir Putin. When the Russian leader inquired about the monkeys, Albright forcefully told him: “I think your policy in Chechnya is evil.”
“That was a time when I thought I’d made a mistake with my pin,” she said.
“Read My Pins” runs through July 20 before moving to its next stop. Booked through 2018, the “Read My Pins” exhibition schedule rivals a One Direction concert tour, and Albright attends most of the exhibition openings.
“As I go around, I reacquaint myself with my pins. I’m sorry some are gone,” she said.
But she takes comfort from friends and strangers who have replenished her collection. And Albright, who only goes pinless when she’s exercising or on a plane, still seeks out new ones at flea markets and odds-and-ends shops.
“This makes me sounds like a nut,” she said. “It’s a lot of snooping and spying.”
The pins have taken their toll — mainly on her wardrobe, which, these days, is primarily made up of black suits with holes where the pins stuck.
“It’s become a monster,” Albright said, referring to the exhibition as well as to the pressure to always have a great pin and even greater story. “Deciding which pin to wear can take nearly as much effort as reading a policy brief.”
Visit www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum for details.