From August 15-18, 1969, one of the most iconic events of the 20th century occurred in the Catskills of New York: Woodstock.
The festival was slated to be held near the summer arts colony in Woodstock, New York, but difficulties securing a venue necessitated it being moved to a farm 60 miles away in Bethel. However, the name Woodstock would forever stay as the name of the festival.
All told, 32 acts performed on stage at Woodstock to an estimated crowd of more than 400,000 people over the course of the festival. In the end, the festival would have a surprisingly large impact on American culture.
Today, fifty years after the original event, the site of the Woodstock Museum Festival has been preserved and is now known as the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. The center provides art programs and concerts throughout the year, but most visitors come to experience the fantastic Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods.
While I am too young to have been alive during Woodstock, the festival and the music is legendary to me, so I was excited to step into the museum as well as to see the site where this great event took place.
The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is located on a bluff overlooking the festival’s stage area. Inside, you’ll find one of the most well-done and immersive museums I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting.
I have no doubt in my mind that no matter whether you were at the festival, lived through the 60s, or simply enjoy history, you’ll feel transported back into the 1960s while visiting the Woodstock Museum.
This immersive experience starts the second you walk into the main exhibition area. You are hit immediately with colorful signage that stretches to the ceiling and the music of Woodstock. A five-minute video is projected on the wall and gives a great overview of the Woodstock Festival as well as helping to set the stage for the rest of the museum.
After this introduction, the museums dives into a great overview of the political and social climate from the 1940s through the 1960s. With everything from music to clothing, the museum shows how life changed from the mid-1940s through the late 1960s.
This really does an excellent job showcasing the environment into which the Woodstock Festival was thrust. For those of us that didn’t live through the time, it’s a great overview of American history, and for those that did live through this time frame, it should be a fascinating walk down memory lane.
Much of the rest of the museum does an incredibly fantastic job covering all aspects of the festival. Whether you want to know about the planning of the festival, what life was like for attendees and the bands, or the impact of Woodstock, there’s a ton of information for you to soak in.
Of course, for me, I tried to soak everything in as I really found it all to be quite interesting. In places, it was a bit hard to figure out exactly which panel to look at next or which direction to turn as much of the museum is housed in one circular room. However, there probably isn’t really a wrong way to explore the Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods.
What really brought the exhibits to life were the many videos scattered throughout the museum. These videos covered nearly aspect of the festival. Some were short and mostly consisted of short archival clips, while others were projected on large screens and had more of a documentary feel.
One of my favorites was shown inside of the large hippie bus with a psychedelic paint job that sits in the middle of the museum. The video, which was about how people got to Woodstock, was shown with a split-screen overlaying the front windows of the bus.
Next to the bus, a large theater featuring colorful lights and beanbag chairs showcases rotating clips featuring everything from live performances to clips of the crowd. Pull up a beanbag and experience what the festival was like.
Another great video is shown in the museum’s more traditional theater. This 20-minute film called “Woodstock: The Music” plays on repeat throughout the day. It intersperses narration with clips of many of the bands that played at the Woodstock Festival.
In addition to interesting signage and well-put-together videos and images, the Museum at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts also features many historical artifacts. These include ticket stubs, advertisements, and even a few musical instruments used by bands during the festival.
The final section of the main exhibition discusses the impact of Woodstock on American history and culture. What started as a simple music festival in the Catskills quickly became so much more than that. Ultimately, the Woodstock Festival was a seminal moment of the mid-20th century and changed the course of both American history and music.
After you’ve visited the mueum, make sure to take the short drive to the Woodstock Monument. This small park overlooks the field where the festival occurred. Take a few minutes to gaze over the site and think about the amazing festival that occurred here half a century ago.
During my travels, I’ve been to hundreds of museums, but the Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods has to be one of my favorites. Not only does it cover an interesting subject, but it does a fantastic job highlighting not only the festival but also the events leading up to it and its effect on the world.
Whether you attended the festival, lived through the era, or simply love American history and the music from the late 1960s, you won’t want to miss this amazing museum.
Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods
Hours: Vary. See website.
Cost: Adults: $19.69, Children: $10
Address: 200 Hurd Rd