Madeleine Albright will be remembered foremost for her historic appointment as the United States’ first female secretary of state — but also for her amazing collection of pins.
The collection was the subject of Albright’s 2009 book, “Read My Pins,” and a popular exhibition that toured the country. And in 2024, 200 of her most famous pins are scheduled to go on permanent display at the still-in-development National Museum of American Diplomacy at the State Department in Washington.
But it almost didn’t happen. Albright, a brilliant diplomat and scholar whose funeral takes place Wednesday following her death last month, was concerned the focus on her jewelry would appear frivolous.
“She thought, ‘I’m the first female secretary of state. Would Henry Kissinger do an exhibit on his ties or suits? I want people to take me seriously. I don’t like it when people are talking about what I wear,’ ” museum acting director Susan Cleary said.
But Albright always used the jewelry as a powerful weapon in her arsenal, a way of conveying her mission. By the time she left public service, her collection — less curated acquisitions and more a random assortment of whimsy — included gifts from world leaders, friends and admirers. There were concerns that the jewelry would be scattered after her death, but Albright had a better idea: She gave her pins to the State Department’s museum.
It all started with a serpent pin. While serving as America’s ambassador at the United Nations, Albright tangled with Iraq over U.N. weapons inspections and was called “an unparalleled serpent” by the Iraq government media. What to wear to a meeting with Iraqi officials? A gold snake pin she had picked up a few years earlier.
She wasn’t sure whether the Iraqis noticed, but the media did, and a tradition was born. On good days, she told Smithsonian magazine, “I wore flowers and butterflies and balloons, and on bad days, all kinds of bugs and carnivorous animals.”
Her pins became icebreakers. She picked an arrow pin that looked like a missile for a meeting with Russian officials while negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. “Is that one of your missile interceptors you’re wearing?” the Russian foreign minister asked. She responded, “Yes. We make them very small. Let’s negotiate.”
A less successful message? The see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys she wore for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was not amused.
The most expensive pin in the collection is an antique French gold-and-diamond eagle she splurged on for her swearing-in ceremony as secretary of state in 1997. But most are costume jewelry she found at flea markets and antique shops out in the country. If she liked a pin, she bought it and waited for the right occasion to wear it.
Her favorite piece? A painted clay heart made by her daughter Kate when she was 5 years old. “The pin reflects one of the indispensable purposes of jewelry: to bind families together and connect one generation to the next,” Albright wrote in her pins book.
It was Albright’s idea to create the museum, Cleary said: Much of diplomacy is invisible, and she wanted a way to make it more accessible. The groundbreaking in 2014 included secretaries of state Albright, Kissinger, James Baker, Hillary Clinton, Colin L. Powell and John F. Kerry. The museum already has 10,000 items as part of its permanent collection, including a lot of pens used to sign treaties and a chunk of the Berlin Wall signed by more than two dozen international leaders. And Albright’s pins, including one with fragments of the Berlin Wall.
“She thought that they should come back home where the story began, in diplomacy,” Cleary said. “It was a meaningful home for her collection. Symbols mean a lot. Sometimes you communicate more by subtext. I think she really understood that not just with the pins, but in many ways that she tapped into people.”
The museum — or at least a small portion of it — opened in 2017; it is still fundraising and hopes to be completed by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the United States. The pins exhibition is online; officials have plans for an in-person gallery opening in 2024, what they hope will be a frequented stop on a tour of Washington museums.
“Her wit and humor and whole personality comes out so well in the pins,” Cleary said. “We think it’s going to be like the Hope Diamond of the Diplomacy Museum.”