In the latest of our series on the world's more unusual museums, we talk to Sally Ferguson from the Amsterdam Tulip Museum - a museum that brilliantly weaves history, botany and economics together to tell the tulip's fascinating story.
Museum Bookstore: Describe the Amsterdam Tulip Museum and its galleries:
With approximately 2,200 square feet, the museum is dedicated to the surprising and flamboyant history of the tulip. Varied interactive exhibits by local artists trace the famous flower’s journey from its origins in the wild highlands of the Himalayas to its arrival at the lavish court of the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (born 1494 – died 1566) to its popularity in the home gardens of today. A visitor favourite is the exhibit that explores the famous Tulipmania period of the 1630s. It was in the century known as The Dutch Golden Age – when Amsterdam was the center of world trade, and Dutch art, science and maritime and military strength held sway worldwide – that the tumultuous tulip trade led to one of history’s most infamous market crashes.
Other exhibits include displays of Ottoman-style tulip-themed art and ceramics, authentic bulb industry artifacts and specially commissioned short films on tulip history.
The popular museum shop is open to the public, without admission fee, from 10 am to 6 pm daily (occasionally staying open into early evening). Those in the know consider it one of the best spots in Amsterdam to pick up gifts and mementos that go well beyond the usual tourist fare. Flower fanciers will appreciate the shop’s carefully curated stock, much of it artist-commissioned. Antique hand-painted Delft tiles are a specialty, as are tulip-themed items of all sorts: vases, jewelry, trays, tea towels, aprons, books, reproduction tile designs, totes, artwork, traditional Turkish tulip-themed bowls and plates, leaded-glass sun catchers and an assortment of children’s items and nicely silly souvenirs.
Museum Bookstore: What should visitors expect when they visit the museum?
At the Amsterdam Tulip Museum, in a half hour or more, a visitor can take in the marvellous story of the tulip – in which an exquisite flower found in remote areas of the Himalayan mountains in Central Asia captured the imagination of highly sophisticated societies in Persia and Western Europe, unleashing passions of desire and greed that culminated 100 years later in Holland’s Tulipmania, the world’s first ever catastrophic economic bubble and stock market collapse. In its wake, from a handful of stolen bulbs, the Dutch flower bulb sector we know today emerged, to the ongoing delight of cut flower lovers and cool-climate gardeners around the globe.
This is a small museum dedicated to the natural history and historic intrigue of a single flower. Its seven exhibit rooms, tucked behind a stellar tulip-themed gift shop, are designed for moseying and musing. Visitors are surprised at what they can learn about the world through the unexpected prism of “The Tulip.” Exhibit signage is in English. The multi-lingual staff is friendly and knowledgeable.
The museum is situated on the Prinsengracht Canal in The Jordan district of Amsterdam, set amidst small canal-side sidewalk cafes and just across from the Anne Frank House. This quiet, cozy quarter of Amsterdam is a lovely place to stroll and linger. For many, a quick duck into the Amsterdam Tulip Museum hits just the right note.
Museum Bookstore: Why do you think it is important to tell the story of the tulip?
Think of it: it’s the tale of a flower so dazzling it drove men mad with desire and played a role in economic history. So unlikely but true! To this day, there is no flower more iconic than the tulip, though the rose gives it good competition.
Museum Bookstore: How did the museum come about?
The Amsterdam Tulip Museum owes its existence to two friends with highly curious natures and a love of the romantic history of tulips. Both came from families in the Dutch flower bulb business: Sjoerd van Eeden in the Netherlands and Tim Schipper in the United States. They met in New York City when they were in their 20s. Sjoerd went on to become a teacher and historian in Amsterdam, while Tim founded Colorblends, an American flower bulb company based in Connecticut. Years later, in Amsterdam, a casual chat about the Dutch tulip season led Tim to muse, “How is it that the tulip is considered a Dutch icon yet it’s not even from here and most Amsterdamers don’t know anything about its incredible story?” Their musing quickly led from ‘why isn’t there a tulip museum?’ to ‘why don’t we open a tulip museum ourselves?’ They realized they had exactly the right kinds of contacts, resources and creative vision to make it happen. They also shared a commitment to doing things the right way, with an eye for accuracy, typically topped off with a dollop of fun. Following four years of development, the museum opened in 2006 in The Jordan district of Amsterdam, an area reminiscent of The Village in New York. As museum director Sjoerd said, “We’ve had good fun. It’s been a wonderful weird adventure that worked out.”
Originally, the Amsterdam Tulip Museum had two additional partners, Carlos and Sigge van der Veek, brothers and partners in Fluwel, a Dutch mailorder bulb company. In the years since, the van der Veeks have opened a very different tulip-related destination: Land of Fluwel, a playful theme park for children and adults in Sint Maartenszee in the bulb-growing district of North Holland.
Museum Bookstore: What are your favourite objects within the museum?
Our favourites (so far) are these:
1) the video we made of NYC jazz bassist Jay Leonhart singing a bluesy ode to the volatile events weathered by a 1600s bulb trader during Tulipmania;
2) our interactive Tulips in the Wild map linking significant species tulips to the sites where they were discovered across Central Asia, the Mideast and Mediterranean, and
3) the interactive wheel we designed to show people how bulbs traveled from Central Asia to Turkey along the Silk Road made famous by Marco Polo.
Museum Bookstore: Thank you very much for your time
Our thanks to Sally Ferguson and the team at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum for their help with this article. If you are travelling to Amsterdam and have an interest for gardening or history, do visit this captivating museum. You'll never look at a tulip in the same way again.