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Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection

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Editorial Review

Exhibit review: 'Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection' at Smithsonian

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 9, 2010

The idea of using jewelry as a tool of diplomacy may seem odd at first. What message could lie hidden in an innocent brooch? Nevertheless, that's the thrust of "Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection," an exhibition of largely costume jewelry owned and worn by the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (1993-97) and U.S. secretary of state (1997-2001), on view at the Smithsonian Castle.

Whether you go looking for encoded meaning in the approximately 300 pins on display or simply appreciate the impressiveness of assembling such a collection, it's a fun outing. The pins aren't great art; they aren't always even great jewelry. Many are inexpensive, even garish tchotchkes. Taken as a whole, however, they're extraordinarily expressive. The pins are mostly grouped thematically in 19 glass cases: bugs, flowers, flags, animals, etc. Certain historic events are highlighted. You'll find a gold angel, eloquent in its simplicity, worn in 1998 to commemorate the victims of terrorist bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

One pin incorporates a piece of the Berlin Wall. Another -- a seemingly abstract assemblage of glass shards -- makes a very concrete point. As the first female secretary of state, Albright had shattered the glass ceiling.

As it turns out, the power of a pin isn't such a strange notion after all, especially when you consider the controversy, early in the last presidential campaign, over Barack Obama's failure to wear an American flag lapel pin. Or that almost no North Korean would dare to leave the house today without a button bearing the likeness of leader Kim Jong Il. What we wear -- or don't wear -- is a strong form of nonverbal communication.

As related in the show, and in the accompanying book, "Read My Pins: Stories From a Diplomat's Jewel Box," Albright's decision to make points with pins came almost accidentally. It was late 1994, during her tenure as U.N. ambassador. Upset over her blunt criticism of Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with U.N. inspections, the Iraqi leader's poet-in-residence described Albright, in a state-controlled newspaper, as an "unparalleled serpent."

To her next meeting with Iraqi officials, she wore a pin featuring a snake wrapped around a branch. A shtick -- sometimes barbed, and sometimes flavored with borscht-belt humor -- was born.

"Before long," Albright writes, "and without intending it, I found that jewelry had become part of my personal diplomatic arsenal. Former President George H.W. Bush had been known for saying 'Read my lips.' I began urging colleagues and reporters to 'Read my pins.' "

This statement, which lends the show its title, goes to the heart of the exhibition. It isn't always obvious what each pin means. Is it sarcasm, humor, mourning, hope or defiance? Even a bee worn to Middle East peace negotiations -- with its stinger on the one hand, and its ability to pollinate flowers on the other -- can say different things to different people.

This, in the end, is where Albright's pins are most pungent. Not in the way they hammer home a point, but in the way they break the ice. Every time a piece of her jewelry raised a question (or an eyebrow), every time it started a conversation where before there was nothing but awkward silence, it was doing the heavy lifting of bridge building.