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Amsterdam Tulip Museum review

This entry is part 25 of 25 in the series Amsterdam Museums

Did you know that Rembrandt sold his painting, The Night Watch, in 1642 for 1,600 guilders? Just five years earlier, a single tulip bulb had sold for 5,200 guilders.

The Amsterdam Tulip Museum is in a storefront with a big multi-pane shop window. People pass by on the street in front. Big pots of tulips under the shop window.
The Amsterdam Tulip Museum

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Tulip mania, part 1

The tulip trade in 17th century Amsterdam is often taken as a prime example of an economic bubble, when prices soar far higher than the commodity is worth in real terms, leading inevitably to  the bubble bursting and lots of lost fortunes.

I learned about this at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum a couple of months ago. The museum, despite being quite small, covers the entire history, starting from wild tulips’ origin in central Asia and the flower’s movement along the trade routes to Turkey’s Ottoman Empire and then, eventually, into Europe. It looks at the “Golden Age” tulip trade and its development into a modern bulb-producing industry. Today, the Netherlands provides 77% of flower bulbs traded worldwide, mostly tulips, according to hollandtradeandinvest.com.

On the left, a woodcut of a red tulip, labeled as "tulipa met haer faedt." Next to it, an explanatory text telling about how two scholars first studied plants in a scientific way and how this woodcut comes from a work Rembert Dodoens wrote. He included the tulips origin and explains its name as coming from a Turks word for bonnets or headdresses. Below that is a small portrait of Dodoens.
The first illustration of a tulip in the Netherlands, dating to 1568.

Note: I put the name “Golden Age” in quotation marks above because the term is falling out of use. The Golden Age was a period of enormous growth and prosperity in Amsterdam. Yet the “golden” part of it was only for the wealthy merchants. They made their money from shipping and trading in goods from overseas: slaves, for example, and sugar grown on plantations worked by enslaved people. Not really so golden when you look at it that way.

My visit to the Amsterdam Tulip Museum

I was not particularly excited about visiting the Amsterdam Tulip Museum. I’d looked inside before, in passing, and it seemed to me just another shop pretending to be a museum. I went ahead, finally, in my effort to complete my series on small museums in Amsterdam, since this seemed like one that people might consider seeing. Perhaps I’d be doing a service by warning readers off. Spoiler alert: I was wrong.

Entering the storefront, my suspicions seemed confirmed. It looks like a shop, just like the Amsterdam Cheese Museum does. It’s filled with all sorts of tulip-related objects: paper goods, figurines, carved tulips, vases, you name it. And, of course tulip bulbs.

The shop in the Amsterdam Tulip Museum, seen from slightly above, filled with shelves and tables and lots of people among them. Bags of tulips are visible in the foreground and lots of brightly-colored objects cover the shelves and tables.
The shop as it looks when you enter the museum.

Right at the back of the room is the entrance to the museum. Unlike the Cheese Museum, this one is not free. It seems strange, but that gave me hope that I wasn’t entirely wasting my time.

The museum encompasses six rooms covering the tulip’s history, trade and cultivation. Some objects are behind glass with a sign explaining them. Some displays are more interactive, including films and, at the end of the exhibits, a VR film. It’s all very dramatically lit and, wisely, focuses on the 17th century tulip mania most of all. I say “wisely” because that’s definitely the best part.

Two pages of the catalogue from the Amsterdam Tulip Museum. The left-hand one shows 12 different tulips, mostly white or yellow but with one red one. On the right are nine tulips, all white, and a drawing of a tulip bulb with the roots showing and green leaves growing from it.
The first commercial nursery catalogue, by Emanuel Sweert.

More interesting tulip mania facts

The most desirable, and therefore most expensive, tulips during the tulip mania were “broken.” They were particularly beautiful because their color “broke”: a red tulip that was broken developed streaks of white. The most beautiful was the Semper Augustus, originally red, but much more valuable with the white stripes. Three “broken” Semper Augustus bulbs sold in the tulip mania period for 10,000 guilders, enough to buy one of the fanciest houses along a canal in Amsterdam.

What the Dutch didn’t realize at the time, though, is that this streaking was due to a fungus. It would eventually cause the bulb to weaken and die.

Two tulip flowers. The left one is mostly white with some streaks of red near the tips of the petals. The right-hand one has more red, so the red streaks extend the full length of the petals.
“Broken” Semper Augustus tulips. The one on the left is more infected, so it’s lost more of its original red color.

Cabinet of Curiosity

The wealthiest merchants in Amsterdam often kept something called a “cabinet of curiosities.” This was simply a collection of anything that to them was weird and wonderful: fossils, for example, or art objects from the colonies, or human or animal skulls or seashells or really whatever struck their fancy. At the Willet-Holthuysen Museum you can see a room that was used just for looking at these items.

The case on the right has a range of drawings and paintings of tulips. The case on the right has other objects, including what appear to be two human skulls.
This room at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum tells about cabinets of curiosity and the formal gardens of the time.

In their cabinets of curiosity, the wealthy would keep drawings and paintings of tulips. Outside, in their extremely formal gardens, they would plant their precious tulip bulbs. Tulips meant status. This is why you often see Golden Age portraits where the person is posing with tulips in a vase; owning tulips you could use for a portrait meant enormous wealth … for a while.

If tulips are your thing, take these two pieces of advice:

  1. Visit the Netherlands in April or early May, when the tulips are blooming.
  2. Take one of the many tours available that include Keukenhof, the amazing garden that showcases tulip varieties (and other bulb plants).

Tulip mania, part 2

Speculation in tulip futures – where the investors would buy contracts for delivery of bulbs in the future – drove the prices up dramatically. In February, 1637, the mania peaked, then the bubble burst.

It’s not entirely clear why the bubble burst. Wikipedia gives several possible explanations. The one that sounds most logical to me is that the Dutch government passed a law in late 1636 that changed the nature of the tulip futures contracts the speculators were buying. Instead of being obliged to pay the full price agreed, the contracts changed to become options contracts. That meant they could pay the full price and receive the promised bulbs or back out of the deal for a much smaller fee.

With that change, they felt that it was safe to speculate even more, driving the prices much higher than they might otherwise have gone. Eventually, the prices had gotten so ridiculous that no one would pay them anymore, and the whole market fell apart.

The drawing from the Amsterdam Tulip Museum is in black and white. Tulips litter the ground beside the chariot. A crowd follows the chariot.
This print, by Chrispyn de Passe the Younger, copied from a painting by Hendrik Pot, dates from 1637 and is called Flora’s Chariot of Fools. According to the sign next to it in the museum, it depicts three tulip buyers and the goddess Flora in the sailing chariot. Flora, sitting high on the back, holds a cornucopia filled with tulips, and the three in her hand are three of the most valuable, including the Semper Augustus. The men in the chariot are called “Eager for Wealth,” “Sweet Beard” and “Travelling Light.” The women with them are called “Hoard-it-all” and “Vain Hope.”

Tulip production

After telling the stories of the tulip’s migration from Central Asia to Holland and of the tulip mania, the museum moves on to tulip production. Displays and old photographs show how tulips have been cultivated and exported over the last few centuries. The last stop is a VR film showing the industry today.

If you are going to visit several museums and attractions on your trip to Amsterdam, it might be worth your while to buy the I AMsterdam City Card. It includes admission to a whole list of museums, sights and entertainment in and outside of Amsterdam, plus a canal boat trip and unlimited public transportation.

My review of the Amsterdam Tulip Museum

This museum pleasantly surprised me. It isn’t big and only has a very narrow focus, with a lot of objects in display cases and drawers. Nevertheless it held my interest. Perhaps it’s because I’m a history buff, though, so I’d recommend it only if the story of the tulip mania interests you.

You could see the main points in about a half hour, though if you read all of the signs, it’ll take closer to an hour, and more if you want to peruse the shop as well.

Amsterdam Tulip Museum: Prinsengracht 116. Open daily 10:00-18:00. Admission: €5/$5.50.

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Text: Amsterdam Tulip Museum: A review (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo)
Image: the "broken" red tulip
Series Navigation<< Amsterdam Cheese Museum review + all about Dutch cheese!

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