ALBANY — For 75 years, Albany has honored the tradition of the Tulip Festival with its signature street scrubbing, Tulip Queen coronation, and wide array of tulips. In honor of the 75th anniversary, the Albany Institute of History and Art is debuting a new exhibition that will be a time capsule of the decades of the iconic festival.
The exhibition titled “Tulips for Albany” is open through Sept. 10. The curation of pictures and objects focuses on the relationship between Albany and the city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, the origins and development of the festival, and the local history surrounding its integral role in Albany.
Diane Shewchuk, curator at the Albany Institute of History and Art, said, “I thought that it would be our gift to the city as well, to do something that honored all of these years, all of these tulip queens, the good things they’ve done, and how the tulip festival has evolved from then to today.”
One aspect of the exhibition is a collage wall that shows recent tulip festivals and their signature music and events.
“I want that section to show that it’s an active festival,” said Shewchuk regarding the festival that takes place this year May 13-14.
The exhibition features the Tulip Queen’s history of literacy programs, service for the community, and her regalia. Scepters, capes, crowns, and jewelry from the decades of Tulip Queens are focal points of the exhibition’s display.
Shewchuk had scrapbooks from the first 10 years of the festival with newspaper clippings discussing the gifts that the Tulip Queens were awarded. Since the 1950s, each Tulip Queen has been awarded a ballgown, including a Christian Dior gown in the 1950s and, in 1975, a gown from renowned designer James Daugherty.
In addition to their ball gowns, Tulip Queens were given china or an entire year’s worth of wardrobe. Shewchuk reached out to the former Tulip Queens to fill the exhibition with real objects.
“I looked at what we had and received some objects on loan from retired queens,” said Shewchuk.
A separate section focuses on the tulips themselves, chronicling the history of the tulips planted and the care involved in creating the festival each year. It also highlights Albany’s signature tulip, the Orange Wonder, a gift from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands in 1948 to the city of Albany as a token of friendship.
The exhibition has photographs of the city of Nijmegen during World War II, along with a description of Albany’s involvement in the rebuilding of the city. Enlarged black-and-white photos are intended to “envelop” the audience with mannequins that set the immersive scene.
The friendship between Albany and Nijmegen is a post-war story. Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands, was the first Dutch city to fall into German hands, and faced immense devastation in World War II. On Feb. 22, 1944, Nijmegen suffered heavy damage and fatalities from an accidental but ruinous American air bombing raid.
“Maj. Gen. James Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne, saw the devastation in Nijmegen caused by the American bombing and felt that Americans should help,” said Cheryle Webber, president of The Dutch Settlers Society of Albany.
Albany was recommended as a leader in the relief effort due to its Dutch heritage. In 1947, Albany adopted Nijmegen as a “sister city” and mobilized relief efforts.
The Albany Institute’s executive director at the time, John D. Hatch, chaired the committee that was vital to sending relief supplies to Nijmegen.
“The friendship that dates back to our cities in 1947 is very connected to the Institute,” said Anja Adriaans when describing her “love” of the museum’s history.
Adriaans, founder-director of FAN (Friendship Albany NY & Nijmegen), was researching history of Albany and Nijmegen when she developed her mission. She said she founded the FAN friendship organization in 2015 to “rekindle this wonderful story because of its beautiful history.”
Albany sent ships filled with supplies to Nijmegen, including shoes, warm clothing, building materials, and hospital supplies, as well as vitamins and medication for the malnourished and sick. A week was dedicated specifically to relief efforts, encouraging Albany citizens to donate to the cause.
“For the people in Nijmegen, it brought hope to their lives,” said Adriaans. “They didn’t know anybody in the United States or Albany, but people with an ocean between us still wanted to help.”
“It can also inspire us all to open our hearts for those in need,” she added. “It’s a beautiful story of the human capacity to help each other. And we can learn from each other!”
The first Tulip Festival was born from Queen Wilhelmina’s gift of 2,000 tulip bulbs to Mayor Erastus Corning in appreciation for the relief effort. Charlie Mooney, editor of the Knickerbocker News, proposed establishing an official yearly tulip festival. Now 75 years later, Adriaans praises “the force of a simple orange tulip.”
“It’s a wonderful story of human compassion and history,” she said. “It’s a reminder for all of us how we can help when people are in need.”