Darlene Fedun may have been too young to attend Woodstock, but the CEO of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is fully aware of its centrality to modern history: “It wasn’t just three days of people coming together,” she says, “it really was a statement of what was going on in the nation.”
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened to the public for concerts and events in 2006, and the Museum at Bethel Woods followed two years later. And although the Center is located on the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair, it is much more than just a tribute to that monumental event. “The festival happened because of the decade and what transpired then,” she says. “So you can’t really separate one from another.”
To this end, the Museum at Bethel Woods tells the story of the entire 1960s, from the British Invasion to radical movements by black Americans, women, environmentalists, and anti-war and anti-nuke activists who fundamentally reshaped American society. “The decade is one of great change,” says Fedun, “of cultural evolution as well as cultural revolution.”
Fedun and museum Director and Senior Curator Wade Lawrence have told this story with the help of some of the 500,000 people who attended the festival. Returnees function as volunteers and docents, and thousands have shared their stories through the Center’s online alumni database. “We wanted to hear their stories; we didn’t want to put words in their mouth.”
The Center’s archives are vast and include oral histories conducted with acts who have performed at the Center, both new artists and musicians who are themselves returnees from 1969; home movies; and period newspapers, fliers, and documents.
And while Fedun and Lawrence knew Bethel Woods Center for the Arts would be popular with baby boomers — “People were coming here before we opened. They would stand at the bottom of the hill, just to look at the field,” says Fedun — they’ve found that it appeals to people of all ages. “There is a fascination with the decade and the music it delivered to the world. It’s very positive. They come here and it’s a happy place.”
Lawrence believes the museum can teach young people today about the continuity of struggles past and present, and about the ways in which solutions transform over time. “Whether it’s high student loan debt, or the women’s movement, or LGBTQ rights,” he says, “the things that define people today, they can see all the young people their age who responded to similar issues and events 50 years ago.” He concludes: “There’s definitely a relationship between then and now, and we’re hoping to bridge that gap.”