Jimi Hendrix’s dive-bombing guitar runs on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Rain chants. Joe Cocker’s chicken strut. The love, mud and three days of music.
The Woodstock experience is a museum piece now.
The Museum at Bethel Woods opens June 2 on the site of the old dairy farm northwest of New York City that was trampled under by some 400,000 people on the wet weekend of Aug. 15-17, 1969. Pare of a $100 million music and arts center, it tells the story of Woodstock. Mocked recently by conservatives as a “hippie museum,” the exhibits actually give a thorough look at the generation-defining concert and the noisy decade that led up to it.
“It’s sort of a three-act play,” said Michael Egan, who is in charge of developing the museum for the not-for-profit Gerry Foundation. “We tell you the story of the ’60s, the story of Woodstock and the story of the legacy of Woodstock.”
Max Yasgur’s farm was chosen for the Woodstock concert after efforts to hold the show in the artsy town of the same name fell through. All-stars such as Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and the Who provided the music, but it was the army of young baby boomers — many of them gatecrashers — whose bliss amid the chaos made Woodstock a watershed event of the 1960s.
The museum casts the concert as the culmination of many ’60s cultural trends and visitors are led on a walk through the decade, figuratively. First up are exhibits featuring the likes of Dr. Spock and JFK. Around a few turns, the museum psychedelicizes bit-by-bit with go-go boots and love beads before Woodstock takes center stage.
Displays include a run of the chain link fence placed around the concert site in a futile bid to keep out freeloaders and a plaque telling the story of Leni Binder, a local woman who made peanut butter sandwiches for the concert kids.
But this is a 21st century museum dominated by sounds and moving images. It’s hard to find a spot where you can’t overhear a crowd chant or a guitar solo pumping from one exhibit or another. There are five interactive exhibits and 20 films playing here, from kiosk shorts to the 50-foot high, wraparound movie that provides a you-are-there version of the concert. Music is the focus of a separate big-screen theater film. Many of the images are from the old Woodstock documentary, but it’s still fun to watch Hendrix’s long fingers projected Godzilla-size, moving faster than the speed of film.
The exhibition gallery sits in one of two connected copper-roofed rotundas. The big buildings are up the hill from the original Woodstock stage area — now manicured and fenced off — and within shouting distance of a 4,800-seat amphitheater. Cable TV billionaire Alan Gerry opened the performing arts center in 2006 as a way to give a needed economic boost to his home county.
Gerry has said he does not expect Bethel Woods to make money in the early going. But Egan said it is booking more shows and attracting more visitors every summer. Performers this year range from Rascal Flatts to the New York Philharmonic. The museum will expand the area’s tourist season into the colder months.
The Gerry Foundation designed the museum as a family attraction — viewers get the idea that Woodstock was wild without NC-17 details about drug use and sex. But the museum does confront Woodstock’s still-controversial legacy.
This was the museum, after all, that sparked campaign-season digs from Republicans last year after Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to help earmark $1 million for the museum. Visitors can watch videos of conservative critics skewering Woodstock, but fair warning: listening to Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese describe the ’60s as a decade of self-indulgence on the way out the door might be a buzzkill.
People who were there, and remember it, can step up to a microphone to record their own experiences for posterity.
Visitors wishing to see the main stage area and imagine what the grassy hillside looked like loaded with hippies can drive down the hill from the museum and park by a marker that has been the main historical attraction here for years.
On a recent day as workers put finishing touches on the museum, Jens Haulund drove his minivan from Trumbull, Conn., to visit the marker with two young visitors from Europe. Haulund came to the United States from Denmark in 1996, and as his daughter climbed on the monument he talked about how as a young man, the Woodstock message of peace and love resonated across the Atlantic.
“It’s one of the main reasons I came to the U.S.,” he said.