Though the iconic talk show came to a close just seven years ago, The Oprah Winfrey Show is already a museum piece.
“Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture,” opened June 8 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and continues through June 2019. The exhibition uses the story of Winfrey and her 25-year daytime talk show as a lens to explore contemporary American history and culture, especially issues of power, gender and the media. It features video clips on a range of subjects, interactive interviews with Winfrey, costumes from her films and artifacts from Harpo Studios in Chicago, home of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Winfrey is one of the most influential Americans in modern history. As an African American woman who hosted an internationally syndicated talk show and founded her own media empire, Winfrey exemplifies American tenets of individual achievement. During her 25 years on broadcast television, her remarkable ability to connect in a familiar way with diverse audiences was crucial to her success. It also made her a subject of controversy, with some criticizing Winfrey for downplaying her race in order to appeal to white viewers. Yet many of the values she espoused on her show—including empowerment, education, spirituality, and philanthropy—were rooted in her African American identity and upbringing.
The exhibition is in three sections: America Shapes Oprah, 1950s–1980s, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Oprah Shapes America. Museum curators Rhea L. Combs and Kathleen M. Kendrick put Winfrey’s story into context for visitors: “During her 25 years on broadcast television, her remarkable ability to connect in a familiar way with diverse audiences was crucial to her success. Many of the values she espoused on her show—including empowerment, education, spirituality and philanthropy—were rooted in her African American identity and upbringing.”
In the first section, America Shapes Oprah, key events in Winfrey’s life are considered in relationship to the broader political, social and cultural changes happening in the country. Artifacts include items from Winfrey’s childhood when she was deeply affected by the working women in her life, as well as artists, authors and activists whose works gave voice to the experiences of African American women. Among the highlights: the high school diploma earned by Carlotta Walls, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in Arkansas in 1957; a pennant carried by Edith Lee Payne, a 12-year-old girl from Detroit, at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; images of women activists, including Pauli Murray, an attorney and Episcopal priest who helped organize the March on Washington, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; and works by artist Elizabeth Catlett.
The exhibition also examines the evolution of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which dominated daytime TV from 1986 through 2011. Watched by millions in 145 countries, the show won 48 Daytime Emmy Awards, and featured a wide range of celebrities and challenging topics such as self-image, racism and sexual orientation. Winfrey herself received a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998.
The exhibition comes full circle with a section titled Oprah Shapes America. It explores Winfrey’s global influence that extends far beyond the world of TV, journalism and entertainment. The phenomenon of “The Oprah Effect”—Winfrey’s ability to shape public opinion and change people’s lives—has long been a subject of fascination and debate; it has raised important questions about the relationship between race, gender and power and about whose voices deserve to be heard and whose perspectives and experiences matter.
“Watching Oprah” is located in the museum’s Special Exhibitions gallery, a 4,300-square-foot exhibition space located on the concourse level near the elevator that takes visitors to the first level of the History Galleries. The exhibit will be open through June of 2019 in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Washington D.C. location.