The Museum at Bethel Woods

Down to Yasgur’s Farm

The Museum at Bethel Woods takes a look back at Woodstock and the peace, love, and rock n’ roll era that made it possible.

The rolling hillsides surrounding Route 17B in rural Sullivan County, New York, don’t appear much changed since 1969, when 400,000 young people gathered at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm to hear songs about Vietnam and social inequality.

Farmhouses in various states of neglect and handpainted signs advertising lakeside bungalows dot the roadside. But the parking lot of the Museum at Bethel Woods, an interpretive center on Yasgur’s former fields dedicated to the cultural history of the 1960s and Woodstock, hints at the sea changes that have taken place since then. A Prius’s bumper sticker proclaims, “48 mpg. Really.” Close by, an SUV sports a constellation of stickers from kids’ sports teams.

The Baby Boomers have grown up, and they’re conflicted. They’re older, too. Although the museum is but a half-mile walk from the parking lot, staffers insist that everyone board a miniature school bus decked in hand-scrawled peace signs. Once upon a time, visitors would have just walked to the entrance. Barefoot.

But whether they’re hippies at heart or members of the silent majority, they’ve come to the Museum at Bethel Woods to remember a music festival that has ascended to American legend.

The museum’s benefactor is Alan Gerry, founder of Cablevision Industries Corporation, which Gerry eventually sold to TimeWarner for $2.7 billion. With the help of proceeds from the sale, Gerry established an eponymous foundation focused on the economic revitalization of Sullivan County, which has been hurting for decades. Mike Egan, senior director at the Museum at Bethel Woods, also serves as CEO of the Gerry Foundation’s museum development group. Egan explains that Gerry’s daughter had a soft spot for Yasgur’s farm, and shortly after its inception, the Gerry Foundation purchased 2,000 acres around the site.

Music first

Building a museum was not its first task, however. First the foundation commissioned architects Westlake Reed Leskosky to design Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a performance venue that has drawn crowds of more than 10,000 since it opened in 2006. The site also includes two smaller performance spaces.

Music preceded the museum project, Egan says, because “it’s easier, it’s got more obvious pizzazz.” It also seems natural for a music venue to honor the site of a legendary music festival. Perhaps most important, multiple functions would help create a travel spot in a place that lacked tourist amenities otherwise.

That would also explain why the Museum at Bethel Woods includes an impressive 14,000 sq. ft. of permanent and rotating-exhibition space. “There’s a rule of thumb that says you should dictate the size of a museum based on economic research of a location and its attractions,” says Rob Malootian, associate and senior designer at Gallagher & Associates (Bethesda, Md.). “But between the music pavilion and the visitor’s center, the museum needed to grow to the scale it is today. It had to become a destination due to its remote location and the current lack of other tourist attractions.”

Setting the stage

Gallagher & Associates was invited to join the Museum at Bethel Woods creative team as exhibition designer in 2005, early on in conceptualization. The total cost of the complex totaled $100 million (85% of which was funded privately). And just as the client’s aspirations fueled a large floor area, they provided the Gallagher team with the budget and the inspiration to make the most of the stories that Woodstock offered.

Procuring expensive archival material certainly didn’t hamper the effort. “Let’s go crazy,” Egan recalls. “Very early on I went to Warner Brothers, which owns all the performance footage, and made a deal to have access to that stuff. We had a lot of great film, music, colors, and graphic looks, not to mention a great story that encompassed big ideas like civil rights, and that gave us a great palette…to go nuts with.” Toning down the sex-and-drugs aspect of Woodstock was one of only a few limitations on the exhibition designers.

Westlake Reed Leskosky wasn’t nearly as unrestricted. Gerry has an affinity for the vernacular farm structures of upstate New York, and the museum fits the mold. The building is comprised of two cupola-topped volumes—a 12-sided museum space and the taller acoustic-performance hall—connected by a bar, and the whole composition is clad in local stone, timber, and copper. Malootian says the groovy archive material and native architecture don’t really blend, but Gallagher decided to not hide the disjunction. “Is there a little conflict? Yes,” Malootian says. “But couldn’t you argue that there was conflict between the local community and the radical kids coming through the countryside?”

Tradition and technology

Indeed, Gallagher’s design capitalizes on the modernized barn. The exhibition sequence hugs the perimeter of the dodecagon, from which curved walls flare into the main path like wisps of reefer smoke. “There’s clearly a fast track,” Malootian says of the circulation, “or you can step off into the second galleries [located behind the partitions].” The Gallagher team organized the historical material in thirds focusing on the 1960s, Woodstock, and the decade’s and festival’s impact on American culture.

Only upon arriving in the second leg of the museum’s story do visitors recognize the centerpiece around which this sequence pivots: the Festival Experience, a theater that, set apart only by partitions that evoke the scaffolding towers of Woodstock, merges into the main exhibition. Six video projectors air a 62- by 50-ft. film experience in 270 degrees, deeply engaging viewers in the minute-to-minute realities (hunger, thunder, mud) of Woodstock despite the porosity of the theater itself. The Festival Experience sits just beyond a plinth-mounted bus painted to evoke the Merry Pranksters’ ride Further, inside which plays a rear-projected film exploring the cross-country journeys that preceded the event.

“We brought in a skilled scenic painter to interpret the reference photos supplied by Gallagher & Associates,” says Chris Emo, who oversaw fabrication for Hadley Exhibits, the primary exhibition fabricator for the project. And on the other side of The Festival Experience sits a 132-seat amphitheater in which museum-goers, newly armed with the social history of Woodstock, can watch “Woodstock: The Music” in 5.1 surround sound. Narrator William Devane navigates Woodstock from the musicians’ point of view, and Egan says that it is the first time 16-mm film has been converted to 1080p high-definition video.

These and other films’ motion graphics are closely coordinated with Gallagher’s exhibition design, and Malootian says the synchronized look is the result of careful collaboration with film and computer-interactive makers Cortina Productions, Northern Light Productions, Second Story Interactive Studios, and The History Channel. It is just one example of the self-restraint Gallagher brought to the assignment.

EGD is another. For instance, “There’s a clear intention that the color choices in the beginning are more conservative to reflect the late 1950s and early ’60s,” Malootian says. The team chose simple, neutral fonts—Frutiger, Officina Serif Book, and ITC Century Light Condensed—for primary text and subtext interpretive panels. Wilder typographic touches—like the font appropriately named Janice—were used sparingly. “We brought out some of the more psychedelic fonts for the walls, where you would find the Timothy Leary quote or what have you.”

Gallagher employed a mix of materials and imaging techniques to evoke the era. In the entryway, compound-curved walls plastered in life-size Woodstock photos were originally imagined as a wood veneer skin with direct-print imagery, Emo explains. But Hadley achieved the same effect by using a modified traditional boat-building technique and decoupage. Fashions, album covers, and other artifacts of the period were given a wall-copy treatment, but the gallery also includes techy features like a giant cylindrical interactive map, balancing the expectations of nostalgic parents and their electronics-hungry kids. “In the past decade we’ve found that the Internet, video games, and technologies across the board have changed the museum-design industry dramatically,” Malootian says. It’s a fitting analog for the world outside.

--By David Sokol, segdDESIGN No. 22, 2008



Location:  Liberty, N.Y.

Client:  Gerry Foundation

Architecture:  Westlake Reed Leskosky

Exhibition Design:  Gallagher & Associates

Design Team:  Patrick Gallagher (principal in charge); Rob Malootian (senior designer); Rebekah Sobel (project manager); Ian Kerrigan (exhibit coordinator); Carl Rhodes,  Hernán Saurit (designers); Vassiana Gargallo (graphic designer); Jennifer Dahl (graphic production); Cheryl Tlam (senior graphic designer); Ray Heinsman (detailer)

Exhibition Fabrication:  Hadley Exhibits

Consultants:  Ted Mather Lighting Design (lighting); Romeantics Productions (AV systems design); McCann Systems, LLC (AV systems); History Associates (writer/researcher); Dennis Barry, Robert Santelli (content consultants); Zubatkin Owner Representation, LLC (owners rep); Second Story Interactive Studios (computer interactives); Cortina Productions, The History Channel, Northern Light Productions (film producers)

Photos:  Wyatt Gallery  (except as noted)  


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