Around Town: Oprah Comes To DC

by Katelyn Rutt

The Oprah Winfrey Show may have aired its final season seven years ago, but it’s making a comeback this summer with a special exhibition.

Oprah Winfrey waves goodbye at the finale of the Oprah Winfrey Show on May 25, 2011 (Photo courtesy of Harpo Studios).

A new exhibition has landed in D.C., showcasing the rise of Oprah Winfrey as an entrepreneur, a media mogul and the first self-made female African-American billionaire. The display, located inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), shares a three-part look into Winfrey’s life and career through the lens of cultural and political history, the 25-year-long run of her show and her impact on America.

“I get excited about all the work we do, but this really has become an exhibition that means a great deal to me and to the museum,” Founding Director of the NMAAHC Lonnie Bunch said. “I became fascinated by who she was, what she did and the impact of the show.”

Bunch added that the museum is the first institution to examine the career of Winfrey. He said it took about a year to compile the research of scholars, curators, designers and donors from around the country. According to Bunch, the collaborative work done by this group of individuals helped create the 360-degree “snapshot” that can be seen throughout the exhibit.

 “In many ways, we realize that this is a fascinating story,” Bunch said. “It is both a story about a TV show, and it’s also a lens that reveals so much about the concerns, the fissures, the hopes and the anxieties that shape our nation.”

Original couches, tables and audience seats from the set of the Oprah Winfrey Show at Harpo Studios (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Because of this, Rhea Combs, supervisory curator of photography and film at NMAAHC, said the process of finding an angle for the exhibit was more extensive than it might seem. “As we were thinking of an approach, it became critically important for us to consider Oprah Winfrey within a broader context,” Combs said. “In many ways, Oprah Winfrey’s story is the American story.

Combs added that the team wanted to portray the evolution of Winfrey’s TV show by contrasting it with the changes that occurred within her life, as well as the evolving social and political climate of America. As a result, the exhibition showcases important artifacts like a pennant from the 1963 March on Washington and the high school diploma of Carlotta Walls, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine. There are also pieces from the early life and career of Winfrey, including photos of her family, her high school yearbook and objects from her early years in the news industry.

Further on in the exhibit, guests can view more well-known items such as Winfrey’s outfits from various films and special events, her desk from Harpo Studios and her Emmy awards.

“One of the messages of Oprah Winfrey that really came across when working on this exhibition is the way that she always saw her career, even from a very early stage, as serving a higher purpose than just herself,” NMAAHC Exhibitions Curator Kathleen Kendrick said. Kendrick said that that Winfrey’s ability to speak about challenging issues with clarity, candor and cultural confidence created a base of trust that audiences of all kinds gravitated towards — a theme they worked hard to weave throughout the entire exhibit.

“In many ways our hopes are simple and grand for this exhibition,” Bunch said. “We hope that the visitors will find moments to ponder the issues that Oprah raised…to find new insights into both TV show, and also into the woman who was chronicle in ever-changing America, and I would argue, who contributed mightily to a changed America.”

The exhibit will be on display and available to museum-goers until June 2019.

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