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Last year, Madeleine Albright came to speak at my university. I did not go see her. Her book, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewelry Box, was on sale in our campus bookstore. I didn’t pick it up. Her collection was on display at the IMA. I wasn’t interested. My boss made me go see it anyway.

I am neither knowledgeable nor affectionate toward brooches or foreign policy. This exhibition didn’t seem the one for me. When I flounced upstairs under my boss’s command I was more excited about flashing my new museum badge at the door than I was about swimming through Albright’s vast pin collection.  However, once I sat inside the exhibition to watch its looping video, Katie Couric started and concluded her interview of Albright three times before I felt good about moving on. She had me at hello.

The brooches seemed ridiculous at first, but became more and more intriguing as I made my way through, jotting down quotes, points of interest and trying to look particularly intern-y. Basically, the whole thing started when an Iraqi poem was published calling Albright an “unparalleled serpent.” Albright already owned a snake pin so she thought, “When we deal with Iraq, I’m going to wear the snake pin.” Once that gained attention Albright went out and bought more: butterflies, flowers and balloons for the good days; spiders, bugs and bees for the bad. Famously, President George H. W. Bush had just asked America to “read my lips” so Albright started telling people to “read my pins” when they asked what she was up to that day.

Serpent, designer unknown, circa 1860.

It was Albright’s ability to connect that won me over. She’s funny, tactful and bold. When negotiating with Russia over the anti-ballistic missiles treaty, Igor Ivanov looked at Albright’s arrow-like pin for the day and inquired, “Is that one of your interceptor missiles?” She replied. “Yes, and as you can see we can make them very small so you’d better be ready to negotiate.” In 1996 when two civilian planes were shot down by the Cuban Air force, she wore a bluebird pin with its head pointing down to honor the fallen pilots.

She has a pin made with pieces of a shattered “glass ceiling,” a clay heart her daughter Katie made when she was five, and a pin tearfully given to her from the family of a Hurricane Katrina victim. I began liking Albright and her exhibition more and more with each passing pin. But it was the process of falling for the exhibit that I appreciated even more than its displays.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling, Vivian Shimoyama (USA), 1992.

What makes us disinterested in something? As audience members — museum-goers or people in general–it is perfectly fine to experience something and decide you’re not a fan. But why is it so easy to “opt out” of certain encounters before they can be experienced?

I’d already been given two opportunities to experience Madeleine Albright and her pins. Only on the third time (when I was forced to go in the name of all that is interning) did I finally have the pleasure. Especially in museum life, because there is so much stimuli, it is easy (if not common) to snub a lot of things. I don’t have an art history background, but I know what I like and I thought I knew what I didn’t like—now I’m less sure. Maybe my mind is too narrow or maybe I’ve been had, but I feel that experiencing some sort of surprise, wonder, or even discomfort is all part of the museum experience and makes it beautifully unique.

This semester I am using my internship at the Indianapolis Museum of Art to take full advantage of the art world. Many people are intimidated by museums. They feel they’re an inadequate viewer or are simply overwhelmed by the content. Art shouldn’t come with baggage. So, my mission is to make art as approachable as possible by documenting the people and the craziness that dwell behind-the-scenes, slaving away for all that is museum life.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Musings

7 Responses to “Read My Posts”

  • avatar
    Daniel Beyer Says:

    Great post, Joe! It was really accessible.

  • avatar

    I’m so glad to see you blogging! This was an excellent post. Pins don’t seem like something I’d be interested in either, but your descriptions and the pictures make me question that. It sounds like a really cool exhibit. (Also, from a writerly standpoint, I was tickled by your use of the word “flounced”)

  • avatar
    Emily Says:

    An interesting idea, I can’t wait to see where you go with it. Also, I think ‘forced’ is a strong word choice… but I’ll let it slide.

  • avatar
    Caitlin H. Says:

    Great insight of the Art Museum world! I’ve read a lot about Albright’s pin collection, but I’m so glad to hear that the IMA has done a great job with the gallery. How long is it in exhibition?

  • avatar
    Joe Wadlington Says:

    The exhibition ran from November 7th to January 30th. Unfortunately, it is no longer on display at the IMA but if you’re interested in fashion art be sure to catch “Material World” opening April 22nd and continuing until Feburary 5th 2012.

  • avatar
    Paul Farris Says:

    You might consider listening to your boss more often.

  • avatar
    Joe Wadlington Says:

    Haha, it has served me well so far.

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