She’s a powerful media executive and Hollywood jet-setter who transformed daytime television, launched literary careers, and convened difficult conversations about race and gender.
But Oprah Winfrey also is an African American activist whose contributions to American culture rank alongside those of Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells, according to a new exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Opening Friday and running through June 2019, “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” features video clips, interview segments, movie costumes, and personal photographs and journals to explore what has influenced Winfrey and how her work has 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,” said museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III. “An African American woman becomes the person America turns to.”
Winfrey donated $21 million to the $540 million museum, making her its largest individual benefactor (its theater is named in her honor). But her role as benefactor did not influence the exhibition, Bunch said.
“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 Winfrey and her staff on arranging loans for the exhibition and on fact-checking and background information.
“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.”
The show balances Winfrey’s humble personal story with her achievements.
“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 said.
The first section of the show, which is in the Special Exhibitions gallery, explores Winfrey’s childhood and early career and how the cultural shifts of the 1950s and ’60s informed her worldview.
“Civil rights, the women’s movement, the media and television landscape, she’s at this distinct intersection of all of these dynamic moments,” Combs said. “She becomes someone at the forefront of dealing with ideas, of discussing hot-button topics like racism and sexual orientation.”
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