Back to the Garden: A Visit to the Museum at Bethel Woods

@The Open Suitcase LLCGroovy.

It’s the adjective that kept rolling through my head as I toured the Museum at Bethel Woods. As in, “Man. Dig those go-go boots. They’re groovy.”

Unless you’ve lived under a dome, you’re familiar with Woodstock, the legendary music festival that took place in upstate New York in August 1969. Despite its name, the festival was not held in the town of Woodstock. And it wasn’t held in the original planned location of Wallkill after promoters lost that site one month before the concert. But sometimes happy accidents occur and Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel became the perfect setting for “The Woodstock Music and Art Fair – An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music”. How the improbable concert came together and its relevance to the turbulent climate in America are explored in colorful and entertaining displays in the museum.

Bethel is located in the Catskill Mountains, approximately 90 miles north of Manhattan. The region was once home to numerous resorts and vacation bungalow colonies and was affectionately referred to as the Jewish Alps or Borscht Belt by the legions of families who spent their summers there for over 50 years. Almost all of the resorts closed by the early ’80’s and the area plunged into decline.

In an effort to resuscitate the region, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened in 2006, featuring outdoor summer concerts on the original Woodstock festival site in an amphitheater that can accommodate up to 15,000 guests. This year’s lineup features classic era-appropriate bands (Crosby, Stills and Nash), contemporary chart-toppers (Kings of Leon) and country music superstars (Keith Urban and the Zac Brown Band).

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Although the concerts are held only during the summer, the Center features a museum that’s open most of the year, dedicated to the current events, social trends, and music of the ’60’s. Entering the permanent exhibition era, the visitor is led through a curved set of displays with photographs and curated items.

During the decade’s early years, Americans were still entranced by the notion of ideal “Leave it to Beaver” families; we listened to pop songs like “Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” on transistor radios and we fell deeply, madly in love with our red-carpet First Family, the Kennedys.

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Then our handsome young president was shot. The Civil Rights movement gained momentum and disturbing images and news reports from Southeast Asia ignited protests against the Vietnam War. We became a nation fighting with ourselves and our government. And our soundtrack was rock and roll.

The museum highlights the events central to the changing climate as well as profiles of some of the individuals with stories key to the times, such as Mohammed Ali and Timothy Leary. Both sides of the explosive issues that divided our country are carefully presented in the exhibits and the portraits celebrate people standing up and speaking out.

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The second half of the museum is dedicated to the concert itself. The organizers were 4 twenty-somethings with no experience in concert promotion. Neither they nor the authorities expected nearly a half million kids to descend upon Bethel, closing the NYS Thruway. Performers had to be brought in by helicopter. There was rain, mud, and little food. And yet it all stayed groovy.

Several films are shown in the museum that plant you back in the garden, including one on a loop inside a replica of the Merry Pranksters’ psychedelic bus. Upon exiting, a Woodstock-generation woman remarked that the concert would never have remained peaceful if was held today. Considering that we now live in an era of slick corporate-sponsored festivals, like Coachella, complete with security checks and full body pat-downs, I agree.

In addition to the permanent collection, the museum hosts special exhibits. If you’re a Fab Four fan, you’ll want to catch “America Meets the Beatles,” featuring great photographs from the band’s U.S. visit and terrific memorabilia.  The exhibit runs now through August 17th and admission is included with the purchase of your museum ticket.

The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is open May – December. Hours vary seasonally. Admission prices are Adults $15, Seniors (65 and up) $13, Youth (8–17) $11, Children (3–7) $6, and Children under 3 are free. Tickets are available on site or in advance through Ticketmaster. Food and beverages are available at The Muse Café, which features a beautiful outdoor terrace overlooking the Great Lawn. A museum visit will take about 2 hours and the grounds are open for exploration on non-concert days.

The kind folks at the Center have donated 2 (TWO) free passes to the museum for a lucky winner and guest. The Rafflecopter giveaway
is open now through June 25 so enter now, enter often, and, in the spirit of Woodstock, share the love.


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