Julia Fell, Curator of Exhibits, reflects on The Museum at Bethel Woods' 15th anniversary and her own relationship with the space.
Today the Museum at Bethel Woods celebrates its 15th anniversary. Holy cow! That’s a whole teenager. Watch out, world!
Considering this special birthday and the Museum’s teen-hood, I got to thinking and realized that I was, in fact, 15 years old the first time I came to the Museum, which just so happened to be in its inaugural year. And yes, I have the photos to prove it.
I grew up in a family that regularly went to museums and historic sites, something I will eternally be thanking my parents for. So, in 2008 when the Museum opened it was a no-brainer to take a family trip. My parents, 15-year-old me, and my 12-year-old brother hopped in the family mini-van, went up the country, and made our way to Yasgur’s Farm.
I remember being proud to wear my flared jeans and sandals, and to let my hair fly free that day. I remember being entranced by the immersive Aquarian Theater (and getting comfy in the beanbag chairs) and getting to sit in the driver’s seat of the hippie bus in the main exhibit. I remember being out on the field, taking in the view, and listening for music and voices echoing across time.
Woodstock and the sixties really had an impact on me that year as I was entering the second half of high school, facing down adulthood, and trying to figure out what life was all about. I found a connection with the music and social movements of the sixties: things that I was already seeing reflected and paralleled in the world around me in the late 2000s. I was evolving from the flower power kid I’d been at the beginning of the decade and started wondering about things American teens and young adults have been concerned about for ages – war and peace, equal rights, and exactly what freedom means. Just like it had for so many teenagers in 1969, 40 years later Woodstock gave me a beacon of hope and the belief that young people can make a difference in a challenging world.
I still never could have imagined that 10 years later I would end up working at the amazing place that helped spark all this. It wasn’t a far stretch to think I’d end up working in a museum after being raised loving them, but it took me four years of a theater degree and a reassessment of my true passions (history and storytelling) to put myself on that path.
In 2015 I was accepted into the Cooperstown Graduate Program for Museum Studies. CGP has a long relationship with the Museum, and then-curator Wade Lawrence regularly visited the students for professional seminars. I introduced myself to Wade and hoped I’d made an impression. I felt that there was a real opportunity for me at Bethel Woods.
Though I ended up pursuing a connection elsewhere for my summer internship the following year, a classmate and good friend of mine got the Bethel Woods internship. And so I eagerly gathered a group of friends for a visit and found myself at the site once again in the summer of 2016.
I was still enchanted with this place. I was thrilled to see the Museum exhibits and grounds again, feeling the energy rolling off the field as we walked down the hill with no shoes on. I was also thrilled to see behind the scenes – to explore the offices and meet the people that made it all happen. This place still held promise for me.
After I graduated from CGP I learned of a fellowship opportunity at the Museum and jumped on it. I met with Wade again, and in March 2018 I came on board the Museum team. In 2019, my fellowship became a full-time position, and the rest is history. I now work with an incredible, dynamic team at the Museum and with passionate and dedicated colleagues across Bethel Woods, and engage with thousands of Woodstock alumni and other site visitors who feel called to this special place.
Over the last five years I’ve explored the parallels between the 1960s and our world through curating more than 10 special exhibitions, assisting with countless programs, and facilitating over 500 oral history interviews. The oral history program is something I’m particularly proud of as I piloted and pushed it forward starting in my first year here. I know it will become part of the lasting legacy of the Museum. I started hearing the voices of Woodstock echoing across that field in 2008, and now, 15 years later I am so pleased to be helping bring them to life.
So, happy birthday, Museum! We’ve both grown a lot in the last 15 years, and I’m so glad to count a good number of those years together.