Tulips and tulipmania

By Thomas Roueche | May 25, 2012

Although for most of us the tulip has come to symbolise the Netherlands, the flower is completely taken for granted by the Dutch. While tourists from around the world – particularly from Japan and the USA – flock to see bulbs, fields and flowers, the Dutch can buy 50 cut blooms for under $10, and fail to see what all the fuss is about.

The Amsterdam Tulip Museum is thus a rather strange place. It was conceived as little more than an extension to a (rather nice) gift shop and is closer to a tourist attraction than a museum. Luckily, however, for those who are interested in the story of the tulip, the inspired curator, Durkje van der Wal, was tasked with the creation of a series of tiny basement spaces in which to tell the cultural, historical, botanical, economic and stylistic story of the flowers.

The wild Tulip is found in the mountains of central asia. Beloved by the Ottomans, the first bulbs made their way to the Netherlands in the hands of Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq, an ambassador for Ferdinand I of Germany to the court of Suleyman the Magnificent. In the Netherlands they began to be cultivated by Carolus Clusius in the gardens of the Hortus Botanicus of Leiden university from 1573. The tulips had a rapid effect on the booming Dutch Republic - by 1634 the famous Tulipmania was underway, a speculative frenzy that seized the nation and became famous as an example of boom and bust.

While perhaps not offering the vast wealth of information a reader of Cornucopia might wish for, the museum charmingly makes a lot of what little it has. Thus, without a large collection of objects and with the constraints of the brief tulip season, they have curated a series of small rooms evoking the different ages of the tulip, and the ways in which people – Dutch, Turkish and others – have engaged with and played with the notion of the flower.

Perhaps the Dutch are prouder of their more recent design heritage than of their tulips. Certainly in this case intelligent, playful design manages to lift the Amsterdam Tulip Museum from a tourist attraction to something rather more substantial.

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