Dan Hust | Democrat
THE HEART OF the Museum at Bethel Woods, which opens Monday, is a theater-in-the-round with 50-foot-high and 62-foot-wide screens enveloping visitors in the atmosphere of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair. The bus at right features a windshield that doubles as a viewscreen, taking riders on a journey of exploration about the transportation issues surrounding the concert. It was all part of Wednesday’s media-only preview of the Bethel museum.
World class opening
By Dan Hust
BETHEL “Sensational” was how Allan Scott described the Museum at Bethel Woods Wednesday.
The CEO of the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency had just toured the 10,000-square-foot museum dedicated to the ’60s and the Woodstock site in Bethel.
Indeed, it sits on the 1969 festival site within the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts complex Scott helped create as the Town of Bethel’s former supervisor.
And while musical luminaries like John Sebastian and Richie Havens offered praise for the facility to the world press during Wednesday’s media preview, the museum is as much about the local experience as the international significance.
As Bethel Woods founder Alan Gerry told the crowd, “The museum will speak for itself.”
The mural that introduces visitors to the circular museum has statements from Wavy Gravy and the like, but prominently displayed are quotes from (and circa-1969 photos of) Kauneonga Lake resident Marion Vassmer and Mileses resident John B. “Jack” Niflot.
“I said, ‘I don’t believe all those people will ever come to the Town of Bethel,’” Vassmer’s quote reads, culled from one of dozens of interviews museum organizers conducted with a slew of locals and performers. “Because we are just a little place, and they’ll never come.”
But half a million people did come.
“Talk about the Woodstock nation,” said Niflot, who covered the event for the Sullivan County Democrat in 1969. “It was a nation camped there. This was just like Moses in the desert. It was really something.”
Further within the curving walls is video footage of County Historian John Conway musing on the festival’s impact, a portion of the futilely erected fence donated by the Cornelius Alexy family of Bethel in memory of their son and brother James, and Democrat Publisher Emeritus Fred Stabbert Jr.’s press pass to the festival.
A large panel in front of the psychedelically painted VW Beetle tells of yet-to-be-Legislator Leni Binder’s sandwich delivery duties during those three muddy days in August 1969.
Nearby, County Attorney Sam Yasgur, son of Woodstock icon Max Yasgur, relates his family’s involvement via a video screen that doubles as a bus’ front windshield.
The museum actually covers far more than Woodstock, with significant sections devoted to every year of the ’60s, complete with original outfits, gadgets and audiovisual footage (20 films alone).
But those exhibits are meant to lead visitors into an in-depth study of the festival that defined a generation, and the 164 artifacts organizers gathered is nothing short of stunning.
Technology is put to use throughout the museum, from intimate two- to 15-person viewing areas to the 132-seat high-definition, surround sound theater showing a 21-minute original Woodstock film on a 22-foot-high screen, narrated by actor William Devane.
The center of the museum takes advantage of the building’s tallest space, with 50-foot-high screens providing a 270-degree panorama of Woodstock sights and sounds, delivered with lighting effects meant to simulate the atmosphere of whatever performance is currently playing.
Just before exiting the exhibits, guests are asked to share their stories via computer, where they can also listen to others’ tales.
The entire experience, said officials, will take visitors about two hours and cost $13 for adults, $11 for senior citizens, $9 for youth ages 8-17 and $4 for kids 7 or younger.
A museum store awaits them when they leave, filled with books, DVDs, knick-knacks, clothing and CDs on music, politics, entertainment and local history. There are even tie-dye kits.
An outdoor bistro offers food, overlooking a Roman-style amphitheater providing seating for up to 1,000 to watch special performances.
Downstairs, two classrooms are already outfitted with the latest in audiovisual equipment, while a special exhibit gallery will make 4,626 square feet available to outside organizations seeking to mount exhibits at the museum.
Coming soon: a walking tour that will take visitors to the significant spots along the 37.5-acre festival site on Hurd Road literally right outside the museum’s doors. An educational component specifically for teachers and students will be introduced in the fall.
“We’re telling a story in there,” said Michael Egan, who headed a team of internationally respected historians, authors and curators to create the Museum at Bethel Woods. “Woodstock has created a place in the mind of the world that is very special.”
The museum opens to the public on Monday at noon and will operate seven days a week, from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (last admission at 5:30 p.m.), through Labor Day. On concert days, the museum will only be open to concertgoers after 1 p.m. However, it will stay open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (last admission at 3:30 p.m.) Tuesday-Sunday from Labor Day to early January and from mid-March to May.
Though closed in the winter months to all but group tours and private events, the museum’s future may one day include even more operating hours.
“It will be a catalyst to keep this place open 12 months a year,” said Gerry.
For more information, call 1-866-781-2922 or log on to www.bethelwoodscenter.org. Advanced tickets are required to secure entry at the desired time (admittance will be hourly to limit overcrowding) and can be combined with concert tickets. All tickets are sold at the box office, online or by calling 454-3388.