Oprah Winfrey exhibition opens at The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture, explores contemporary America via the story of the world-famous media mogul at the The National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The temporary exhibition tells the inspirational story of the African American woman who became a cultural icon around the entire world. Winfrey has used her fame to break down barriers and to harness the power of the media in an unprecedented way. As she said, in a speech to Stanford students in 2008: “I am no longer going to be used by television, I am going to use television.”

Her show won a veritable host of awards, including 47 Daytime Emmy Awards and 12 NAACP Image Awards. It remains the highest-rated daytime talk show in American television history, averaging 10-20 million viewers a day.

The exhibition looks at the impact of Oprah Winfrey across many platforms. She came to fame as a television talk show host but is also renowned as an actress, producer, and media mogul. She is equally renowned both as a philanthropist and as an educator.

Her success shines a light on both the struggles and achievements of African American women and explains how Winfrey influenced change in America. The Oprah Winfrey Show both reflected and helped usher in seismic change particularly in the areas of gender, race and mass media.

The exhibition displays original material from Chicago’s Harpo Studios, which hosted The Oprah Winfrey Show for over 20 years. It also contains items from Winfrey’s personal collection. Photographs and video further flag up key themes, providing extra context.

Three primary sections

The exhibition has three main components.

  • America Shapes Oprah. A biographical section which looks at the period between 1954 and 1985 when America was struggling with racial integration and women’s liberation. It was the era when television expanded into everyday life.
  • The Oprah Winfrey Show. Covering the 25 year history of The Oprah Winfrey Show from 1986 – 2011.
  • Oprah Shapes America. Covering the period from the 1980s to the present day, this section looks at how the show and Oprah’s celebrity brand developed.

Exhibit co-curators Kathleen Kendrick and Rhea Combs worked with a team of scholars from the fields of sociology, African American studies, religion and gender studies. Together they homed in on objects that would convey Winfrey’s life.

One room is given over to photographs from Winfrey’s green room. Visitors will be able to see the easy home-style furniture from her talk show set. They can also watch famous clips from her shows. Included is her discussion with senator (as he was then) Barack Obama.

On a more intimate note, the exhibition displays Winfrey’s diaries. She kept them since the age of 15 and they show an insight into her thoughts and feelings. The journals document everything from high school heartbreak to her intense gratitude for her success.

Earlier this year Winfrey gave a rousing speech at the Golden Globes which was followed by calls for her to run for president. Although she has made no indications that this could happen, the final item on display in the exhibition is, perhaps tellingly, her black Golden Globes dress.