Arts & Culture

Oprah Winfrey’s Journey Is Celebrated At The National Museum Of African American History And Culture

“Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” opens June 8th at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey

Media powerhouse and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey is being honored and celebrated with her own exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), highlighting Winfrey’s expansive accomplishments and trailblazing journey throughout her prolific lifetime.

Some of Winfrey’s greatest achievements include becoming the first black female billionaire, the first African-American woman to own and film her own television show, and is considered to be the most charitable celebrity, donating millions of dollars through her three main foundations: The Angel Network, The Oprah Winfrey Foundation, and The Oprah Winfrey Operating Foundation.

According to the Washington Post, the 4,300 square foot exhibit, titled “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture,” consists of more than 240 artifacts and multiple media displays including journals, personal photographs, interview segments, and more–all dedicated to providing an in-depth exploration of Winfrey’s monumental journey and how her contributions have shaped the world.

Winfrey is the Smithsonian NMAAHC’s largest individual benefactor, offering a hefty contribution of $21 million to the $540 million museum. But the museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III made it clear that Winfrey’s generous donation had no impact on the exhibition. “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 closely with Winfrey on background information and fact-checking. Not only does the exhibit highlight Winfrey’s accomplishments, but it also walks viewers through her personal story and childhood, detailing how the cultural changes in the 1950s and 60s framed her worldview.

“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 told the Post.

“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.”

One section of the exhibit focuses exclusively on the 25-year evolution of the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” the highest-rated talk show in history. Artifacts from the show’s studio are used in order document how the talk show tapped into social issues such as racism and the fight for equality. “She used television as a social medium, convening conversations and creating these interactive experiences with people,” said Kendrick. “She’s offering lessons for living, social guidance in a way.”

Another section explores Winfrey’s cultural influence, the films she’s produced, books from Oprah’s Book Club, along with her work as a philanthropist.

The museum’s director, Bunch, told the Washington Post that he hopes the show will inspire and encourage onlookers to reflect on Winfrey’s everlasting impact.

“There are so many issues, about women, power, media, body image,” he said. “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.”

“Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” opens June 8th at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and runs until June 2019. For ticket information, click here to visit the Smithsonian’s website.

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