Woodstock Museum Ensnared in Presidential Race In upstate New York, people are a little surprised that a local construction project has become fodder for a national political controversy. A museum being built on the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival is now a topic in the presidential race.
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Woodstock Museum Ensnared in Presidential Race

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Woodstock Museum Ensnared in Presidential Race

Woodstock Museum Ensnared in Presidential Race

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Just across the state line in Upstate New York, people are a little surprised that national politics are being made of a local construction project. A museum that's being built on the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival is now a topic in the presidential race.

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain is blasting New York Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton for trying to get federal funding for the museum. He's running ads in New Hampshire featuring scenes from Woodstock.

NPR's Robert Smith went to see what this is all about.

ROBERT SMITH: When Wavy Gravy took the stage at Woodstock, he could be forgiven for not knowing exactly where he was.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. WAVY GRAVY (Activist): We must be in heaven, man.

SMITH: Not quite. Woodstock didn't actually happen in Woodstock, New York. They couldn't get the permit. Instead, they held it here in Bethel, New York.

I'm standing along the side of the highway where there is a large plaque about the size of a Volkswagen bug that memorializes the site of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. The actual farm where the festival took place is now a performing arts center, Bethel Woods. You can see the $100 million complex up on the hill. And that is where they're going to build this museum.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man: It was a cultural event that defined a generation, worthy of fond memories, but worthy of a million of your tax dollars to build a museum? Hillary Clinton thinks so.

SMITH: John McCain's ad began running last week after both New York senators pushed for an appropriation for the museum. But after it began to be branded as a hippie museum, the money was stripped from the bill. The negative publicity shocked folks here in Upstate New York. First of all, the project is officially known as the Museum at Bethel Woods.

And Michael Egan, who's in charge, says it's not just a Woodstock altar, but an entire exploration of the 1960s. Because it's under construction, he won't allow me inside. But he gave me a cell phone tour of the site.

Mr. MICHAEL EGAN (Chief Executive, Bethel Woods Museum): So you'll walk in the doors right over the museum and to the permanent exhibit gallery.

SMITH: Okay, I'm walking and I'm looking around. What do I see?

Mr. EGAN: And so you're going to see - you're instantly transported to early '60s. And this huge baby boomer population coming on the scene. And then you will experience the cultural transformation that occurred in those years.

SMITH: I can feel my hair growing longer as we move through this museum.

Mr. EGAN: And through this time, Robert, the color is around you. The images are all changing…

SMITH: More psychedelic.

Mr. EGAN: All of these things led up to Woodstock and are embodied in Woodstock and can be seen through the prism of Woodstock.

SMITH: Do you have any of the brown acid?

Mr. EGAN: We don't have any of the brown acid, so you won't find that here.

SMITH: There will, however, be a gift shop for non-pharmaceutical purchases, of course. Most of the support for the museum is being raised through private donors. The largest is billionaire Alan Gerry, who owns the site of the festival and has bankrolled the concert arena there, as well as the museum.

It's, by far, the fanciest thing in town. Bethel is still a rural place. And a spokesperson for Senator Hillary Clinton called the museum an economic development opportunity for the region. Down the road from the site is a tiny gas station where people stop every day asking for directions to the Woodstock Festival.

Mike Mulligan(ph) says it would be nice if there was something for the tourists to see once they got there.

Mr. MIKE MULLIGAN (Business Owner, Bethel): People come from all over the country and Canada, and they stop by and ask the local people what they think about Woodstock and they're very interested in it.

SMITH: His wife, Patricia, grew up in town and says all those stories of friction between the hippies and the town residents are exaggerated.

Ms. PATRICIA MULLIGAN: My grandmother lives around the corner and she had them sleeping on her porch. Mr. Vasmen(ph) took them in. He fed them. None of the check bounced. There was very little trouble for that amount of people. For that amount of people, very little trouble. It's our history and it should be memorialized.

SMITH: But when I told them about the John McCain ad, they conceded that he does have a point. They don't think taxpayer money should be used to build the museum.

Another local, George Anascot(ph) joins us and says that Alan Gerry, the billionaire supporting the project has enough money to do it himself.

Mr. GEORGE ANASCOT (Bethel Resident): He can build it on his own. I don't think he really needs any help to charge that.

SMITH: And indeed, that's what's happening. Even without the federal dollars, the museum is being finished and it's expected to open next summer.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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