Oprah Winfrey in London in March 2018
Photo: John Phillips (Getty Images)

Who is more iconic in contemporary black history than Oprah Winfrey? That was a trick question, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture is celebrating the media powerhouse and trailblazer as such, launching a new exhibition that is all about Winfrey.

According to the Washington Post, the new exhibition, titled, “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture,” opened Friday and will run through June 2019. The exhibit will feature video clips, interview segments, movie costumes, and personal photographs and journals that will tap into what influenced the superstar and media executive and showcase how her contributions have shaped America.

“What’s interesting is the same way America thought about Walter Cronkite—you could trust Walter Cronkite and his opinion—they trust Oprah,” museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III told the Post. “An African-American woman becomes the person America turns to.”

Indeed, Oprah completely changed daytime television during the 25-year run of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which is the highest-rated talk show in history, and where she broached difficult conversations surrounding race, gender and sexuality.

To be clear, Winfrey did donate some $21 million to the $540 million museum, which ranks her as the museum’s largest individual donor. However, Bunch emphasized that her generous gift had no influence on the exhibition.

Advertisement

“We made sure there was a bright line, that this was done by the museum and museum scholars,” he said. “The fundraising was not through Oprah’s people.”

Curators Rhea L. Combs and Kathleen Kendrick worked with Oprah and her staff to fact-check information, as well as to secure loans for the exhibition.

“In terms of content and narrative and the way the story is told, it’s the museum’s product,” Kendrick said. “The way we approached it was the way we approach all of our exhibitions.”

Advertisement

The exhibit goes through Winfrey’s early childhood and career, detailing how the cultural shifts and the 1950s and 1960s shaped her and influenced her, the Post notes.

“We’re providing a context for understanding not only who she is but how she became a global figure, and how she is connected to broader stories and themes,” Kendrick explained.

“Civil rights, the women’s movement, the media and television landscape, she’s at this distinct intersection of all of these dynamic moments,” Combs added. “She becomes someone at the forefront of dealing with ideas, of discussing hot-button topics like racism and sexual orientation.”

Advertisement

Of course, what would be an Oprah exhibition without special focus on The Oprah Winfrey Show and how Winfrey impacted the nation with her reach and influence?

“She used television as a social medium, convening conversations and creating these interactive experiences with people,” Kendrick said. “She’s offering lessons for living, social guidance in a way.”

The last section of the exhibit explores Oprah as a culture influencer, from the impact she made through the movies she starred in to the books she pushed on her television book club and her philanthropic work.

Advertisement

Interestingly enough, the release of Oprah’s exhibit was meant to coincide with the last quarter of the museum’s second year, when officials expected attendance at the museum to start to wane.

But because the museum is so iconic and special in and of itself, that never happened, with weekend crowds still at capacity and timed passes still being required. So far, the museum has seen 3.8 million visitors since its grand opening Sept. 24, 2016.

“I really thought after the first year it’d be business as usual, so at the end of the second year, I’d do something to give it visibility,” Bunch said. “I didn’t anticipate we’d have the same crush of crowds.”

Advertisement

Regardless, the Oprah exhibit is sure to be a hit.

“There are so many issues, about women, power, media, body image,” Bunch added. “This should be a popular show because of the impact of this person, but it is also a show that allows us to think about what it means that a woman who doesn’t fit the TV look could build a media empire and become an entrepreneur.”