Woodstock Museum Re-Creates '69 Concert

If you don't remember being at Woodstock, you now have a second chance. On the site of the original 1969 concert in Bethel, N.Y., a new museum has opened. It may have been almost 40 years since Woodstock, but it still manages to be controversial.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

For those who never made it to the Woodstock music festival in 1969, or perhaps weren't even born yet, it's not too late. On the site of the famous concert there's a new museum that promises to bring people back to the rain and the mud and, of course, the music.

(Soundbite of Woodstock music festival)

SMITH: It's hard to imagine what the 400,000 young men and women who camped out on Max Yasgur's farm would think of the place today. The lawn is manicured, there's a performing arts center, and at the top of the hill is The Museum at Bethel Woods. Who knows if the hippies would have paid the 13 dollar admission. And let's be honest. Many of them would now qualify for a senior citizen discount.

Mr. MICHAEL EGAN (Senior Director, The Museum at Bethel Woods): So, I'm Michael Egan, senior director of The Museum at Bethel Woods.

SMITH: People call it the Woodstock Museum. Are you OK with that?

Mr. EGAN: I'm fine. It's all about Woodstock. So, if that's the name they prefer, that's great.

SMITH: Egan never made it to the actual festival. He was a 16-year-old stuck on Long Island at the time. But now he gets to relive the scene every day.

Mr. EGAN: This is the intro gallery, and we introduce the themes that we're going to talk about. So we see Blood, Sweat, and Tears' performance from Woodstock. Now it's dissolved into Jimi Hendrix. But at the same time, we hear John Kennedy speaking, and we see images from the Space Race, images of civil rights when Richie Havens starts playing. And so, yeah, we're all about Woodstock, but we're all about what was going on at the time as well. There's a social context to it.

SMITH: Turns out, it only takes a couple of hours to relive the entire decade of the 1960s through the magic of interactive displays.

Unidentified Announcer #1: But as the baby boom generation's rebellion against the establishment continued to gather strength, their look and style changed in ways that shocked their parents and grandparents.

Mr. EGAN: How did they wear their hair? What kind of clothes did they wear? What did they look like? What did they talk about? What did they watch on television? Why?

SMITH: You sound like you're talking about the Victorian era. I mean, there are people listening right now who remember the '60s. Was there any reluctance to having a museum dedicated to the '60s? Because it almost says it's dead, it's gone, it's beyond memory.

Mr. EGAN: Well, you know, sometimes you want to push the boundaries a little. So if we pushed it a little bit, OK. But there's an eagerness on the part of - certainly of boomers to re-experience their youth.

SMITH: Look, every museum ends up simplifying and streamlining history, and this one is no exception. The civil rights movement, the antiwar protests, and the musical changes of the decade are tied up in a neat, little bow.

Unidentified Announcer #2: With the rapidly maturing Beatles and Dylan's folk rock, popular music began to speak to fans with messages about civil rights, especially in the face of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and about the war in Vietnam. It was time, as The Supremes said, to stop in the name of love.

SMITH: But when you get to the far side of the museum, the place starts to let its hair down and have a little more fun. You can actually sit in a magic bus.

Mr. EGAN: We found a 1956 school bus and cleaned it up and brought it into the exhibit, and then promptly went about painting it up like a hippie bus. And then we project on the front screen a film which is all about the kooky journeys to Woodstock.

SMITH: Including Arlo Guthrie's wild helicopter ride over the festival.

Mr. ARLO GUTHRIE (Folk Singer): And I remember being in this helicopter. And the door was open, and this big cop looked down and said, there's a lot of hippies down there. I bet they're doing lots of illegal stuff. And I suddenly realized that this was going to be a party. This was going to be fine.

(Soundbite of song "Magic Bus")

THE WHO: (Singing) Every day I get in the queue. (Too much, the Magic Bus) To get on the bus that takes me to you. (Too much, the Magic Bus) I'm so nervous, I just sit and smile. (Too much, the Magic Bus)

SMITH: But for every exhibit that talks about how groovy it all was, the museum also presents the less sexy side of Woodstock. You can look at the business plans to make money off the festival, the original music lineup, the security blueprint the organizers put in place, all those plans useless once the multitudes arrived. And Egan says it's amazing how close the festival came to disaster.

Mr. EGAN: In a way, they succeeded in spite of themselves, because they didn't expect this many people. They didn't have food for them. They didn't have sanitary facilities for them. They didn't have shelter for them. So it was a story, I think, that showed the best of mankind. Kids were behaved. The local residents came out and fed these kids and took care of these kids.

Unidentified Woman: I was home with my mother. And my father came in the door and quickly said, get all the pots you can and start boiling the water, the kids are starving on the mountain. And I didn't know what he was talking about. The kids on the mountain, the Woodstock festival.

(Soundbite of song "The Fish Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag")

Mr. COUNTRY JOE MCDONALD (Lead Singer, Country Joe and the Fish): (Singing) Well, come on, all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again. Got himself in a terrible jam, Way down yonder in Vietnam Put down your books and pick up a gun, We're gonna have a whole lotta fun. And it's one, two, three, What are we fighting for?

SMITH: At the center of the museum is a three-story open space with bean bags where you can chill out and watch video of the concert itself. Hendrix, Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Country Joe and the fish.

Mr. MCDONALD: (Singing) Wonder why, we're all going to die. Now come on Wall Street, don't be...

SMITH: Most every visitor here is old enough to have some story about how they almost went to Woodstock or just missed it, dude. But then I find someone who actually attended the concert, Pat Begg(ph) is from Ramsey, New Jersey.

Ms. PAT BEGG: Well, I just came the last day because I had kids at home. So my girlfriend and I brought two of our kids. And we just came the last day and had to park miles and miles away just to come up to see what was going on, and we did. And we didn't stay long though.

SMITH: This may be considered a rude question. But if something you experienced becomes a museum, does it make you feel kind of old?

Ms. BEGG: Aha. The whole thing makes me feel kind of old. Because the baby that I brought with me was only four months old, and he's going to be 40.

SMITH: Begg says the museum does capture her Woodstock experience, even if they don't include all the drugs ands sex and nudity that she saw out in the fields. Museum organizers in fact call it a PG 13 version of Woodstock. And it's hard to blame them. Woodstock is still controversial. In the last exhibit, the museum shows a video montage about how the event, and the whole decade, for that matter, was glorified by some and mocked by others. There's even a few people on the display who consider it a low point in American history, like Ed Meese, attorney general under Ronald Reagan.

Mr. ED MEESE (Former U.S. Attorney General): The '60s were just a terrible time for the country. You have the - it was the age of selfishness. It was the age of self indulgence. It was the age of anti-authority. It was an age in which people did all kinds of wrong things. That was the start really of the drug problem in the United States.

SMITH: And you realize as you watch all these video clips, that there's a whole generation that only knows Woodstock in the '60s through its stereotypes. Nineteen-year-old Andrew Pattover(ph) is touring the museum. He's with his parents, of course. And for him much of the history is indeed new.

Mr. ANDREW PATTOVER: I'm learning that a lot of it actually had to do with the war, that it was a big movement about the war, actually. I thought it was just more of a peace and music thing, more just hippie movement and drugs.

SMITH: So you knew the wacky outfits, you knew a little bit of the music, you knew the magic bus and the Day-Glo colors. You didn't know any of the serious issues behind Woodstock?

Mr. PATTOVER: No. I didn't know about any of that.

SMITH: Oh, not that there aren't plenty of Woodstock stereotypes in the museum, especially in the gift shop. Museum Director Michael Egan leads me through these racks of hacky sacks and peace symbol shot glasses, mood lamps. And it's hard not to wonder if this somehow violates the whole spirit of Woodstock.

Mr. EGAN: You know, it's here if you want them. And if you don't, well then, move right on.

SMITH: But I wonder if some people do come through and say, somehow this thing that was supposed to be a revolution, a change in lifestyle, a change in human consciousness gets reduced to a museum, an exhibit, a little slice of history you can do in a couple of hours?

Mr. EGAN: Well, you know, life is like that. Right? You know, I think, we can't change the world. We can certainly show you people who did change the world. We can certainly show you ideas and ideals that helped change the world. But, you know, then people have to go do it for themselves.

SMITH: Michael Egan is the senior director of The Museum at Bethel Woods, better known as the Woodstock Museum. They're getting ready for the 39th anniversary of the concert next month.

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