Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco - Legion Of Honor
San Francisco, CA
Read My Pins presents a remarkable range of more than 200 pins and brooches from the personal collection of Madeleine Albright. The majority of these pieces were collected and worn during Albright’s service as US Ambassador to the United Nations (1993–1997) and as the first female Secretary of State (1997–2001), under President Bill Clinton. The assortment is eclectic, international, and representative of nearly a century of jewelry design.
Yet the jewelry’s true interest lies not in their materials or monetary value but in the roles they played during her political service: Albright used her pins as silent yet visually outspoken codes to foreign officials and the press. Pins could be adopted for various reasons—a shining sun or a patriotic flag would reinforce a positive alliance with the United States, for example, while more difficult negotiations might bring out wasps or snakes.
Albright served the US government during a remarkable period in history, and many of the notable landmarks of her tenure can be decoded through the visual iconography of her pins. These pieces document and symbolize moments of political upheaval and also convey the patriotism of this Czechoslovakian-born diplomat. Whereas George H. W. Bush famously said “Read my lips” to convey a campaign promise, Albright encouraged, “Read my pins,” demonstrating that jewelry had become part of her personal diplomatic arsenal. These objects became delicate instruments with which she applied pressure during intense negotiations, and into which she invested humor as she represented the United States on the international stage.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.
Whether you go or not, the exhibition catalog, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box, tells the story of how one woman’s jewelry collection was used to make diplomatic history. It would never have happened if not for Saddam Hussein. When U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright criticized the dictator, his poet in residence responded by calling her "an unparalleled serpent." Shortly thereafter, while preparing to meet with Iraqi officials, Albright pondered: What to wear? She decided to make a diplomatic statement by choosing a snake pin. Although her method of communication was new, her message was as old as the American Revolution—Don't Tread on Me. From that day forward, pins became part of Albright's diplomatic signature. International leaders were pleased to see her with a shimmering sun on her jacket or a cheerful ladybug; less so with a crab or a menacing wasp. Albright used pins to emphasize the importance of a negotiation, signify high hopes, protest the absence of progress, and show pride in representing America, among other purposes.
Part illustrated memoir, part social history, Read My Pins provides an intimate look at Albright's life through the brooches she wore. Her collection is both international and democratic—dime-store pins share pride of place with designer creations and family heirlooms. Included are the antique eagle purchased to celebrate Albright's appointment as secretary of state, the zebra pin she wore when meeting Nelson Mandela, and the Valentine's Day heart forged by Albright's five-year-old daughter. Read My Pins features more than 200 photographs, along with compelling and often humorous stories about jewelry, global politics, and the life of one of America's most accomplished and fascinating diplomats.