Leaving the Legacy of Woodstock on a High Note
In 1969, the Woodstock music festival took the world by storm. The festival cemented now-famous bands and musicians in the anals of rock and roll history, but it also brought together half a million diverse, disparate people through their love of music. Ultimately, Woodstock created a thesis statement for the 1960s, preaching peace and love in a period of intense political and cultural change.
In 2006, at the former dairy farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains where Woodstock took place, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened to the public as a concert space. Its museum—which dives deep into the cultural implications of Woodstock on the 1960s—opened two years later. While the museum and concert pavilion both recognize Woodstock’s significant place in American history, the cultural landscape where the festival occurred (including the stage area and surrounding woods) has remained largely untouched.
Rather than rebuild the original stage, campgrounds, or marketplace for visitors to explore, the team at Bethel Woods are instead opting to leave most of the site as-is, with only a few markings to denote the original spaces where structures once stood. But Woodstock will still reinterpret these sites through the use of mobile-friendly tours that include audiovisual elements and even augmented reality. We spoke with Bethel Woods’ museum director and senior curator, Wade Lawrence, to learn more about upcoming plans for the site.
How was Bethel Woods Center for the Arts founded? What are the exhibits and museum programming like?
[Years ago], a local philanthropist saw that the property where the Woodstock festival had taken place was for sale, and at the urging of one of his daughters, he looked into purchasing it. His foundation purchased it and the surrounding land for viewshed protection, with no particular plans to do anything with it except save it from development. His foundation hosted two concerts on the historic Woodstock field called A Day in the Garden and A Day in the Garden Two. He realized there was a lot of energy at this site, and he started the process of hiring engineers and architects to create the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
Bethel Woods opened to the public in 2006 as a performing arts center and concert pavilion. Our opening season started off with the New York Philharmonic, and [since then] we’ve had everything from Yo Gabba Gabba to Phish to Crosby Stills Nash and Young to Elton John.
The museum’s main exhibit looks at the Woodstock Festival through the lens of the 1960s, so [visitors] can understand why Woodstock mattered through the context of popular culture and political elements like civil rights, the Vietnam War, suburbia, pop music, fashion. Our current [rotating] exhibit is Peter Max’s early paintings. We’ve had a variety [of exhibits] from Eddie Adams’ Vietnam photographs to The Beatles’ arrival in America, to a great exhibit from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights called “Speak Truth to Power.”
In 2012, we transitioned to nonprofit [status], so we have arts and humanities [programming] for children, teens, and adults focused on the lessons of the ‘60s—self-expression and social justice. [The programming is] based on our museum exhibits but expanded to the classroom.
[In 2017], the Department of the Interior listed the site on the National Register. When we applied and were working with the State Historic Preservation Office, the head of historic preservation was an attendee at Woodstock. Her last official duty was signing the National Register application for us, and her replacement was also a Woodstock attendee!
We’re hoping to be listed as a National Historic Landmark next year.
How are you planning to reinterpret the historic Woodstock stage area?
We don’t want to recreate the stage or build a model of the stage—we want to mark its location so that people can imagine what the stage looked like. Our initial idea was to just mark the footprints of the major built elements of the festival (the stage, the large fence in front, and the six sound and lighting towers) with a band of stone.
That still is a possibility, but our designers at Heritage Landscapes LLC have come up with a series of suggestions. Some of them are conceptual, using vertical elements to suggest the height of the fence and the height of the stage. They might [also incorporate] raised footprints for raised seating, [but] we aren’t going to build something 20 feet off the ground because it detracts from the historic nature of the site. We want people to stand where Jimi Hendrix played the National Anthem and [become him] for 15 minutes. That’s an important part of experiencing the festival site: putting yourself in the shoes of the performance.
How are the Bindy Bazaar trails (a system of trails near the staging area) historically significant? What sort of work are you doing to clear and reinterpret them?
Right in the center of the festival’s 300 acres is a wood that had been part of the rural landscape. When the festival was designed, the natural bowl for the concert part was pretty obvious. Directly to the west of the [concert] hill was the Bindy Bazaar Woods. It was named the Bindy Bazaar by the [festival] designers—one of them had lived in Mumbai, India, and he purchased a lot of Indian tapestries from a bazaar there [by the same name]. He used the tapestries to decorate the structures at the festival.
Another designer [created] a network of trails that were strung up with Christmas lights and bare bulb lights. 20 vendor booths were set up, so the bazaar became a marketplace for Woodstock. The vendors were selling leather goods, craft items, candles, posters, and head shop items (rolling papers and pipes).
[The designers] had already defined the footprints of where these booths were going to be [with stones], and those footprints remain. We had an archaeology group from Binghamton University come and identify the manmade objects in the woods—they identified all 20 of those footprints and mapped them for us.
Our crew has [also] been working with archaeologists and landscape architects to figure out the paths that the trails took. We cleared several routes through the forest, and we’re going to open the loop route first. We’ll interpret the vendor booth footprints and the evidence from the festival—rocks on the ground, bits of wire that are still hung on the trees. I think that will enhance the visitor experience a bit more creatively. Our major interpretation [work] is a part of a larger project that we’re planning right now: a handheld enhanced audio tour. We’re working with Antenna International on that. That tour will go to all the major sites on the property through video, audio, still images, and augmented reality. Of course, that project is completely dependent on funding right now.
“It was more than just a rock festival: It came to symbolize an entire generation.”Wade Lawrence
How does interpretation connect to cultural landscapes like Bethel Woods?
When people think of cultural landscapes, oftentimes they often think of designed spaces. The Woodstock festival did have a designed [element], but I think the natural contours of the land, and the relationship to the forest, the lake, the hill, and the roads, are just as much a part of its cultural heritage. It’s our job is to strip away the things that don’t belong, make the natural landscape look similar to what it did in ’69, and drop those little breadcrumbs that people can use to imagine what it was like.
Having worked at Drayton Hall, I’m very aware that landscapes have a lot of meaning and emotional content. By doing nothing—we haven’t built condos or roads—the natural landscape still shows through very clearly. Just walking that hill, for many people, is an emotional experience. They can feel the music coming from the stage area, and the half million people standing there [with them] The best thing we can do is to preserve that historic landscape in as pristine a manner as possible.
Do you have any anecdotes about people who had been at the festival and visited Woodstock since?
Our concert season lasts from June through August, and a lot of the original Woodstock performers have come back to Bethel Woods to perform. We offer [them] a guided tour on a golf cart with a concert attendee. Duke Devlin [who had been an original Woodstock attendee] was our guide a couple years ago, and he drove Carlos Santana down to where the stage was. Carlos Santana got out of the golf cart and stood approximately where the center of the stage was, and he looked up the hill and started crying. He looked up at the stage and said, “This was ground zero for peace and love.”
Folk singer Joan Baez was pregnant at Woodstock, and several years ago, she and her son came to the museum. That was another unique experience, where his [mother] made one of her most memorable performances.
Why is it important for future generations to learn about Woodstock through its tangible heritage?
Woodstock is very relevant today. It was more than just a rock festival: It came to symbolize an entire generation. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, women’s rights, gay rights—everything in the ‘60s was encapsulated in Woodstock.
Fifty years later, what do young people expect of their world? The issues of the day aren’t a lot different from what they were in 1969. I think being able to experience a cultural landscape such as the Woodstock Festival Historic Sites connects people of all ages, but especially young people, to a time when there was optimism. We can [express that optimism] with exhibits, with books and articles and educational programs, but I think walking that site and getting the context of what happened there 49 years ago is very important. You can feel it in your soul, and it becomes real.
Funding for preservation
activities regarding the historic 1969 Woodstock festival site is provided by
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts members and donors. Major support for current
historic preservation projects at the Woodstock site include the New York State
Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; the A. Lindsay and Olive
B. O’Connor Foundation; Robyn Gerry; the John J. & Regina B. Heldrich
Foundation; the Grillo family; and the National Trust for Historic
The Archaeology of the Woodstock Stage Area project has been funded by donors to Bethel Woods for the preservation of the historic Woodstock site and by an EPF grant administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, as well as funding from the A. Lindsay and Olive B. O’Connor Foundation, the Hart Family Fund for Small Towns at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Sullivan County Plans & Progress Small Grants Program.
If you want to learn more about this project, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts will be presenting at the 2018 PastForward annual preservation conference in San Francisco.