A Museum On Woodstock, With a Haircut

The Museum at Bethel Woods is part of a multimillion-dollar music and arts center built by a foundation on the site of the Woodstock festival.
The Museum at Bethel Woods is part of a multimillion-dollar music and arts center built by a foundation on the site of the Woodstock festival. (By Jim Mcknight -- Associated Press)
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

BETHEL, N.Y. -- It rises from the hilltop, bigger than a barn, built of stone and roofed in copper. Officially it will be the Museum at Bethel Woods, and it will be focused on the Woodstock festival, the "three days of peace and music" that took place here in August 1969. But the museum has been tagged by critics with a different name: the Hippie Museum.

"This is the farthest thing from a hippie museum that anything could be," declared Harold Russell, a dairy farmer who is the town supervisor -- and a reelection-seeking Republican -- in Bethel. "I personally take a little offense to that."

In this rural area, the project is seen as crucial to the economic recovery of a region hammered by the closing of once-popular Borscht Belt tourist resorts.

But the museum has become a magnet for criticism. A $1 million congressional earmark -- pushed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D), with fellow New Yorker, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), signing on -- generated a squabble on Capitol Hill, and Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), killed the measure with the help of a handful of Democrats.

A campaign ad for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) unveiled this week is a send-up of Clinton for supporting the museum earmark in a congressional spending bill. The spot opens with a spinning tie-dye image and shows footage of a dancing, presumably zonked-to-the-gills flower child at Woodstock. McCain is seen at a Republican presidential debate, saying, "A few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock concert museum. Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time." Cut to footage of McCain as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.

McCain (who missed the vote on the earmark) got a big laugh and a standing ovation from the crowd and his fellow Republicans. But if his zinger played well on the trail, it hasn't here in Bethel.

"It's definitely not a celebration of hippiedom," said Darrell Supak, a former Army colonel who was wearing a blue pinstripe suit and polished burgundy shoes as he greeted a visitor at the entrance to the museum. Supak is the right-hand man of billionaire Alan Gerry, whose foundation runs the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. "It's definitely not a hippie museum," he said.

The museum is not finished, and officials with the arts center, which includes the museum, would not permit a tour of the exhibit space. But Mike Egan, the Gerry Foundation executive who has spent more than two years putting the museum together, provided a detailed briefing complete with computer graphics and a blueprint.

A visitor entering the permanent exhibit will learn about the broader historical context of Woodstock -- the baby boom, the Cold War, the roots of rock-and-roll, the civil rights movement, the assassinations and riots of the 1960s, and so on. Inevitably, the visitor will come upon a section labeled on the blueprint as "the Hippies."

"We talk about the hippies, we talk about the look of the hippies, we talk about the drug use of some of the hippies, and we talk about the burnout," Egan said.

It will be possible to go inside a school bus modeled on the one used on cross-country treks by author Ken Kesey and his band of "Merry Pranksters," whose antics were documented by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

Music and videos will be everywhere. The central area will be devoted to the festival proper, and visitors can sit partially surrounded by a video screen that will create the illusion that they are at the concert watching the performances.

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