The Oprah exhibit at NMAAHC shows Oprah is even more influential than you thought
‘Oprah Winfrey became an important way for us to look at the ways in which society dealt with ideas around promise and potential.’
On Sept. 8, 1986, the landscape of daytime television changed forever. Oprah Winfrey became the first black female host of a nationally syndicated daily talk show. The Oprah Winfrey Show, which lasted 25 years and produced 4,561 episodes, catapulted Winfrey into one of the most successful people in U.S. history.
The colossal light blue wall in the recently opened “Watching Oprah” exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the names of each episode and their air dates are printed, takes visitors by surprise.
Since debuting the exhibit in June, more than 2,000 people have signed its guest book. The museum averages about 6,000 to 8,000 visitors a day, according to co-curator Kathleen Kendrick.
The 4,300-square-foot space opened on June 8 and will remain through June 2019. The exhibit tells Winfrey’s story in three sections: America Shapes Oprah, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Oprah Shapes America. Among the unique items featured are a diary entry that Oprah wrote hours before The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted, costumes from movies she acted in such as The Color Purple, the red suit she wore during a car giveaway on the show, original audience chairs and a vast number of pictures of people she interviewed during her career.
“It was really important for us to recognize the importance of not only history but also looking at a lot of the cultural figures,” said co-curator Rhea Combs. “Oprah Winfrey became an important way for us to look at the ways in which society has really sort of dealt with ideas around promise and potential, and the ways in which the media has influenced so many aspects of today’s modern culture. No one person is more poised to have that conversation or to explore that than someone like Oprah Winfrey.”
One of the first things Kendrick and Combs looked for was scholarly work that had been done on Winfrey. They brought in some of the scholars to discuss the meaning of Winfrey, which served as foundational research that formed the conceptual framework for the exhibition. The research included discussions with people who worked in media and gender studies, African-American and religious studies, and even a sociologist. They knew the show would be the centerpiece of the exhibition, but they searched for a contextual framework to place it in.
When the museum opened in 2016, the curators set out to explore broad themes of history, culture and community and to share the stories that made a lasting impact on African-American culture. With the temporary Winfrey exhibit, they wanted something with a lot of popular appeal. Since the museum already had a relationship with Winfrey because she was the museum’s largest donor and served on the museum’s advisory board, they chose to display her journey in a larger context than just Winfrey’s platform in the permanent exhibition.
“It really shows the breadth of Oprah Winfrey and the way in which she was situated within a larger narrative around American potential: the possibility and potential of each of us. And so in that vein, this exhibition is a metaphor for the opportunities and potential for each of us,” said Combs.
Before the demolition of Harpo Studios in Chicago, the home of The Oprah Winfrey Show, curators were able to secure treasures such as pitch sheets with Winfrey’s handwritten notes that were used by the producers to come up with show ideas. Another treasure was the blue note cards Winfrey used while interviewing guests. Although Kendrick was excited about these finds, it could not match the joy for her favorite piece in the exhibition, Winfrey’s desk from her office.
“It was the place where she ran her media company for almost 25 years. It represents her role as a businesswoman. That was another part of the story we wanted to highlight in the exhibition: that she is not only on television but she owns the show that she created, and she was producing it, and created this media company that not only did television but film and magazine and web. So having her executive desk as the kind of nerve center of her empire was a really cool, iconic object that we were able to include in the exhibition,” said Kendrick.
Other interesting artifacts on display include her high school scrapbook, yearbook, her high school diploma and family photos.
“These objects like that put a human scale to Oprah. She’s so larger than life in so many ways, but those objects really help to ground her story,” said Kendrick.
Combs wants visitors to understand Winfrey’s role within the larger social, cultural and historical context, making it clear that she succeeded because she followed her passion.
“I want visitors to come away with the understanding of Oprah as both an icon for the empowerment of women … [and] for the empowerment of African-Americans.”
Kendrick said Winfrey revolutionized cultural conversations and became a pioneer by addressing uncomfortable topics that might have been neglected in the national media.
“She’s really made our cultural conversations a lot more inclusive, and we see on her show going back to the early days where she is having topics like racism and sexuality and child abuse and all these things that weren’t necessarily talked about that much at the time and she’s making it OK to talk about, and she’s also making herself a part of that conversation,” said Kendrick.
The only influence Winfrey had on the exhibition was greenlighting items to use and being interviewed for the interactive segment called “Ask Oprah,” where fans got to ask Winfrey questions.
When Oprah first saw the exhibition, she was moved and excited because it was such a surreal experience as she took a trip down memory lane. She was brought to tears by one comment left in the guest book by a fan that read: “Oprah Winfrey is the reason I love myself so fiercely and know that my voice matters in this world,” by Blue Telusma.
Combs said they wanted to emphasize how Winfrey fit into the context of American society and how her story parallels America’s identity. Her work with social justice, philanthropy and the “Oprah effect” had a lasting impact because, Combs said, of how Winfrey understood her life and the potential for herself.
“Our goal was to tell the story of Oprah and the Oprah Winfrey show but also to help visitors understand why she is so important and the impact of her contributions,” said Kendrick. “We look at the context in which she came of age in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement [and] what really shaped Oprah’s sense of what she could become, what her potential was. And I think by laying that groundwork in this exhibition we really are adding more layers to Oprah’s story than maybe a lot of people are familiar with.”
Tiffany Wilkerson, a museum visitor from Nashville, Tennessee, said the exhibit encapsulated the magnitude of Oprah’s accomplishments.
“I’m kind of amazed at how many different connections she has to different parts of society, whether it be economic or just culturally, how much she has contributed to our country,” said Wilkerson. “I’m often in awe at how many things I can make a connection to, whether it be women’s rights, whether it be her being a person that was able to speak her mind and pioneer … things that we typically were not a part of.”