Madeleine Albright's famous serpent pin, others in Cedar Rapids

Former Secretary of State's pins go on display at Czech & Slovak Museum

Madeline Albright
Madeline Albright

Throughout her diplomatic career and in the years since then, Madeleine Albright’s brooches have been more than just a fashion statement.

They were a part of her diplomatic signature.

“I feel nude without a pin,” said the former and first female secretary of state by phone from Washington last week. “Somehow the pins work for me.”

It was a serpent pin that started it all.

“The whole story never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Saddam Hussein,” she says matter-of-factly.

After the Gulf War, it was her job as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to enforce sanctions against Iraq.

“I was told I was supposed to say perfectly terrible things about Saddam Hussein constantly, which he deserved. Then all the sudden a poem appeared in the papers in Baghdad that compared me to many things one of them being an ‘unparalleled serpent.’ I happened to have the snake pin so I thought I’ll have a little fun and I wore it during our debates on Iraq.”

The media noticed.

“I thought, well this is fun, so I went out and bought a lot of costume jewelry that would reflect what we were going to do on any given day,” she says. “Good days were flowers and butterflies, and on bad days I wore a lot of insects and carnivorous animals. I was the only woman on the Security Council and the ambassadors would say, what are we going to do today. I’d say ‘read my pins.’”

These pins make up “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection,” the newest exhibit at Cedar Rapids National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, which opened May 11. Albright was in Cedar Rapids on Friday and today for two sold-out events celebrating the opening of the traveling exhibit, which will be on display through Oct. 27. She’s also visited with area students.

Born in Prague in the former Czechoslovakia, Albright has a deep affection for her Czech heritage and said she looked forward to her visit to the museum and Cedar Rapids, her first since the Floods of 2008.

“I love the Czech and Slovak Museum and all the things they are doing to celebrate the culture into which I was born. I look forward to seeing it,” she said. “Plus I like the Czech food that’s in Cedar Rapids and enjoy the whole atmosphere. It’s a very nice town.”

Albright was the first female secretary of state — appointed by Bill Clinton and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate — from 1997 to 2001. She was also the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997.

She wants visitors to the exhibit to realize that “one can have a very serious job and have fun,” she said.

And she hopes the pins and the stories that go with them will give a more tangible history lesson.

“I hope people learn a little bit about the history and issues I had to deal with when I was at the UN and as secretary of state. I love foreign policy, but I think that it has to be less foreign and really have stories that go with it. I hope people see the exhibit as a pleasant way of learning about a lot of issues. As they say a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”

The 280 pins — ranging from animals, sea life and insects to instruments, flowers and several vintage pins, including a “Suffragette pin” from 1900 — were used by Albright to emphasize the importance of a negotiation, signify high hopes, protest the absence of progress and show pride in Several pins in the exhibition symbolize the glass ceiling she broke and the weight of the world on her shoulders during the time she served that office.

As her career advanced, her pins got bigger.

“I wore them partially to cover up the holes of the other pins,” she said with a laugh. “But some of it had to do with messages I really did want to send. One of my bigger pins is my American flag I wore with (North Korean dictator) Kim Jong-il,” she said. “They kept criticizing the United States and I figured that if they took a picture of their dear leader with me that it was going to be publicized, so why not wear the biggest American flag I could find.”

While she doesn’t know exactly how many pins are in her collection, she does have a favorite — a hand-painted ceramic heart made by her daughter when she was 5 years old.

“My favorite really is Katie’s heart in so many ways because it tells a story about how an inanimate object can have meaning.”

Another pin in the exhibition, the “Katrina Pin,” reinforces that same idea.

A young man whose father was a World War II vet and whose mother had died as a result of Hurricane Katrina gave Albright the amethyst family heirloom while she was visiting New Orleans just a year after the disaster.

“It really is kind of a stunning depiction of what emotion and meaning a piece of jewelry can carry with it.”

If you go

What: “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection”

When: Through Oct. 27. Museum open Monday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Pl. SW, Cedar Rapids

More information: 

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