In Seattle, Madeleine Albright's Tales of Diplomacy

At the Bellevue Arts Museum, the 'Read My Pins' exhibit delivers Albright's stories of diplomacy—as told through her extensive collection of pins

“Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection” is an exhibit of the former U.S. secretary of state’s famous pins, currently showing at the Bellevue Arts Museum. The exhibit is an interesting intersection of art, fashion, symbols and politics. And it all started with a snake pin.

Albright spoke at a press conference at the museum about the beginnings of her extensive pin collection, recalling how the Baghdad newspapers ran a poem that compared her to an unparalleled serpent. She began wearing a snake pin whenever talking about Iraq, and was eventually asked why. “I said, ‘Because Saddam Hussein compared me to an unparalleled serpent.’” Afterward, she said, “Well, this is fun. So I went out and bought a bunch of costume jewelry to depict what I thought was going to happen on any given day. So on good days, I wore flowers and butterflies, and on bad days a lot of insects and carnivorous animals.”

The collection includes many flowers, butterflies, insects and animals, but it also includes Americana pins, musical instruments and symbolic works of art.

“I clearly love foreign policy,” Albright said. “I wanted to make foreign policy less foreign for people, and I traveled around the United States a lot, and obviously around the world … but basically I think that being able to tell foreign-policy stories to people through jewelry pins is something that does make it less foreign.”

 'Read My Pins' exhibit at Bellevue Arts Museum

Accompanying the pins are photographs of Albright with foreign leaders, U.S. presidents and other officials, and at speeches and meetings. In each, a pin graces her left shoulder. The stories of the pins are also there, giving context to her collection.

Albright told the tales of some pins in the collection, including one abstract piece that is an arrow but looks like a missile.

“When I was negotiating the anti-ballistic missile treaty with the Russians, Igor Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, looked at the pin—by then people knew what was going on when I wore a pin—and he said, ‘Is that one of your interceptor missiles?’ And I said ‘Yes, and we make them very small and it’s time for you to negotiate.’”

One of the more interesting photographs in the exhibit shows Albright with Kim Jong Il. The pair are standing side-by-side, Albright’s American flag pin covering much of her shoulder. “I knew that [North Korea] had been denouncing the United States in all kinds of things and I figured that there would be some picture of me with him. What would it be like if I wore the biggest American flag pin I can find? And so here we are.” About the photo, she said, “If you look, we’re about the same height. And if you look, I had on high heels—and so does he. And look, his hair is a lot poofier than mine. I think that’s kind of a fun picture.”

While some of the pieces do contain precious gems, many are costume jewelry that Albright picked up at flea markets. “Some of them just speak to me. They appear somewhere, and it’s really fun.” She said many pins were also gifts.

Some pins are grouped in the exhibit, including her turtle pins, which, she said, “Were very useful for Middle East peace talks because we were never getting anywhere.”

Designer Unknown, "Serpent," circa 1860

Her two favorite pins are a heart that Albright’s daughter created at 5 years old and an amethyst piece she calls her "Katrina pin." It was given to her in New Orleans a year after Katrina hit, while at a dinner for the D-Day Museum. “This young man comes up to me and says, ‘My father is sitting over there, he’s a World War II vet and he earned two purple hearts.’ He has this box, and he opens it and there’s this pin with the amethyst and he said, ‘This was my father’s anniversary present for my mother’s 60th-wedding anniversary.’ And then he said, ‘But she died as a result of Katrina, and we would like you to have the pin.’ I said, ‘I can’t possibly accept this pin.’ The young man said, ‘You have to, our mother loved you and it would be something that we want you to have.’ So I said, ‘It would be an honor.’ And so, it’s an inanimate object that carries an awful lot of significance.”

The exhibit is on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum through June 7, and the accompanying book, “Read My Pins: Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box,” is available in the gift shop if you’d like even more stories from this incredible collection. The exhibit’s next stop is the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif.