"Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection" Opens at the DAM

April 17 2012, 8:00 AM

Standing in the presence of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is a remarkable experience. Barely five feet tall, her small stature belies her larger-than-life charisma. As the first female to hold the United States' top diplomatic post, Albright was known as a dynamic and strong negotiator. To get her message across, she often wore brooches, something NPR called "jewelry-box diplomacy."  More than 200 of those pieces are on display in the Denver Art Museum's latest exhibit, Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection (running through June 17).

"I wanted to make foreign policy less foreign," Albright says of the exhibit. "Pins are a way to tell foreign policy stories." And it all began with Saddam Hussein. At the end of the Gulf War, after Saddam refererred to her as an "unparalleled serpent," during her next visit to Iraq, Albright wore a gold serpent pin. "I thought, well, this is fun," she says.

On good days, she'd wear flowers and butterflies, such as when she put on a zebra brooch to meet Nelson Mandela; on tougher ones, spiders or bees—indicating a "stinging operation"—might make an appearance. (Of note: Most of the pins are inexpensive costume jewelry that Albright picked up at flea markets or souvenir shops.) Government officials would often look at Albright's lapel to see what kind of meeting they should expect. "It did become a message to people," she says.

The diplomat also has strong ties to Colorado. Albright's family arrived in Denver when she was 15—she considers the Mile High City her hometown—and her father is the namesake of the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies. So it's only appropriate that on the day of her visit, Albright adorned her lapel with two cowboy boots and a Stetson.

View a slideshow of some of Albright's pins.

Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders