Just when you thought Oprah Winfrey couldn’t get any bigger, the queen of all media is now the subject of her own retrospective at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.
“Oprah is one of the most influential figures in modern society, an embodiment of pop culture, a representation of the past but is so very present,” the exhibition’s cocurator Rhea L. Combs tells Architectural Digest. “She resonates with so many people. It’s a beautiful thing.”
The show, aptly entitled “Watching Oprah,” is divided into three sections, starting with America Shapes Oprah, which traces her early upbringing. There are photos of Winfrey on her first day of school in 1955, a high school scrapbook from 1971, and early advertisements from 1975 promoting her Nashville news show, where Winfrey got her start. “We’ve been able to watch her change and evolve. We can see her hope, potential, and promise in herself throughout this exhibition,” explains Combs.
A model of Winfrey’s childhood home, which is featured in the exhibit.
Leah L. Jones
This is illustrated through Polaroids of Winfrey’s family members, and portraits of the artists, authors, and activists who shaped her vision, like Pauli Murray, a women’s rights lawyer who helped organize the March on Washington, and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, in 1968. “She came from humble beginnings,” says Combs. “Oprah lived the kind of life that doesn’t seem too outside the reality of many people today.”
The exhibition features over 250 objects, from her Emmy awards to the famous couch Tom Cruise jumped on, and the red dress Winfrey wore during the 2004 car giveaway episode (which is perhaps remembered best these days as a meme). There are also her personal journals and letters from Toni Morrison. Visitors to the exhibition, which opened June 2018 and is scheduled to run till June 2019, have Oprah herself walk them through her revolutionary path in daytime television through clips from her more than twenty-five-year career on-air (her eponymous television program ran until 2011 and was watched by billions of viewers in 145 countries).
One of Winfrey’s journals, chronicling her early work experiences.
Benjamin G. Sullivan
The exhibition even includes the wooden desk she used at the beginning of her career on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was filmed in Chicago and first aired in 1986. It’s covered with framed photos of her partner, Stedman Graham, as well as glasses and letters. While at first glance it may appear to be a bit barren, it holds important significance according to Combs. “The desk is the nerve center,” she explains. “When you’re curating an exhibition, you can’t put pages from a book on a wall – each object tells a multilayered story. This desk is one of them.”
More than just a trail of memorabilia, the cocurators wanted to put Winfrey in the context of other important African American women; these include abolitionist Harriet Tubman, women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells. “We wanted to show how she is part of a magnitude of other women,” says Combs. “When people look at Oprah, she’s a part of the lexicon of our society, despite class, region, and race.” This has been done through the inclusion of specific items from Winfrey’s life: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Barack Obama granted her in 2013; and the Versace dress, in black to signify solidarity with the #MeToo movement, that she wore to the Golden Globes as she gave a rousing speech about women’s rights while receiving the Cecil B. deMille Award for lifetime achievement.
A picture of Winfrey as a baby in her childhood home, which is featured in the exhibition.
Benjamin G. Sullivan
Winfrey’s catapult to television fame was around the same time as Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake’s, but Winfrey’s talk show had the highest ratings. “She stood out from the crowd by making a show about bravery and honesty,” says Combs. “It was not about sensationalism; it was a critical movement and a risky move.” To illustrate how Winfrey set herself out from the crowd, the museum has included her high school speech tournament trophy from 1971 (which once resided her in childhood home) that set her on the path for not only public speaking but also speaking her mind. There are pages from her high school scrapbook, in which she wrote about her dreams and aspirations, that are shown alongside several handwritten thank-you letters given to Winfrey for her work, including one from fashion designer L’Wren Scott from 2011 and another from Toni Morrison from 2000. There’s also a note from Winnie Mandela from 1988.
A younger Winfrey, on her way to stardom.
Benjamin G. Sullivan
Beyond her time as an interviewer, Winfrey is also known as the greatest black female philanthropist in American history – in fact, she donated $20 million to this very museum. “Oprah stands as a mechanism for good and that should be commended,” says Combs. There are examples of both this success and altruism housed in the exhibition, but while her triumphant rise throughout her career is highlighted in the exhibition, it’s not just about her work or her financial success that makes Winfrey such an interesting subject, according to Combs.
“Her true talent is to connect with people where they are, and it’s not to be underestimated,” says Combs. “She’s a good listener; she not only hears people but accepts them. Looking at the exhibition is looking at the potential and power in all of us.”