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Watching Oprah: exhibition dedicated to star who ‘chronicled an ever-changing America’

New exhibition at the National Museum of African American History places Winfrey and her storied career at the centre of the American story

The first thing that becomes apparent walking into the new Oprah Winfrey exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture is that Winfrey isnt there. No photos, no quotes or memorabilia, no clips from her decades-long career.

Thats notable given that it is a first of its kind dedication to one of the biggest personalities in American culture at the nations premier museum dedicated to the African American experience. One of the worlds wealthiest women and a self-made billionaire who grew up wearing potato sacks in the Jim Crow south, Winfrey is still relevant decades after she first came on the screen with some even calling for her to run for president now.

But the story on display in the new temporary exhibition, Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture, which opens its doors to the general public on 8 June, is one thats bigger than Winfrey and her story is huge. As exhibit co-curator Kathleen Kendrick put it to the Guardian: Its about Oprah, but you dont see Oprah.

Rather, the exhibit, a story told in three sections, opens by connecting her to other women and black leaders who helped pave the way, and provide the context for her rise. The first room features quotes from Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, as well as the lilting strains of the Supremes, the all-black womens pop trio that helped break barriers for black women in entertainment.

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Oprah Winfrey attends the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Windsor on 19 May. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The museum takes seriously the notion that it does history and culture and I wanted to find concrete examples where we could explore the impact of culture, Lonnie Bunch told members of the press gathered for a first look on Wednesday.

Bunch said Winfrey has in some ways replaced Walter Cronkite as one of the most trusted people in television. But Winfreys story, unlike Cronkites, isnt confined to Washingtons Newseum, a tribute to the media business.

Rather, shes being featured alongside the greatest black progressives of American history including Ida B Wells, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.

It is, in other words, less about an individual than a cultural change. (Asked why Winfrey wasnt in attendance, Bunch brushed it off. This isnt about that, he told the Guardian, adding that he wasnt sure when she was coming to see it.)

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Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture. Photograph: Walter Larrimore/Smithsonian Institution, Nationa

Instead the exhibition places Winfrey and her show squarely in the context of the America of her youth in 1950s rural Mississippi, examining how that America helped inspire her.

Such contextualizing is consistent with the way that Winfrey herself tells her story. She frequently quotes the late poet Maya Angelou saying: I come as one but I stand as 10,000.

Its also about encouraging viewers to make personal connections, like those made by Carolivia Herron, who teaches classics at the historically black Howard University, and who, while contemplating a photo of the singer Nat King Cole, recalled how her family used to rush into the living room to marvel at the spectacle of a black man on television.

Though it was Herrons local radio show that got her into Wednesdays unveiling, she was most interested in it as an educator, telling the Guardian the idea of a hero being a conduit for a whole culture rather than what she does in and of herself had already inspired future lesson plans.

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Should Handguns Be Banned? The Oprah Winfrey Show, 1989. Photograph: Harpo Productions

Oprah Winfrey was born into poverty in rural Mississippi, where her ancestors had been enslaved. Born to a single mother, she lived for some time with her grandmother, but her gifts were shown early when she landed an on-air radio job while still in high school.

From there she embarked on a career in news that would take her to Baltimore and eventually Chicago, but along the way she found the rules of journalism didnt let her be who she was. Id cover a fire and then Id go back and try to give the victims blankets, and I wouldnt be able to sleep at night because of all the things I was covering during the day, Winfrey said in a 2008 speech at Stanford University.

Her powerful emotional intelligence made her a better fit for talkshows, where she would fast become a household name, first rivaling and then surpassing Phil Donahue, the reigning king at the time.

She started with his brand of confrontational television jilted lovers, surprise pregnancies but found greater success in inspiring her audiences rather than shocking them.

I am no longer going to be used by television, I am going to use television, she told the Stanford students.

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Nelson Mandela on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2000. Photograph: George Burns

That ability to inspire, as well as her business success, is why some liberals are now looking to her as a potential savior in the darkness of the Donald Trump era. And after a rousing Golden Globes this speech earlier this year, in which she accepted a lifetime achievement award, she dominated not just the cultural but political news cycle with calls for her to run for president. (The final item on display was her black Golden Globes dress.)

Our president is giving her state of the union, prominent black feminist writer Roxane Gay tweeted during her speech.

Winfrey has none of the traditional qualifications for the highest political office in the land but neither does Trump. And then again, not many people end up with museum exhibits dedicated to them before they run for president (Winfrey has repeatedly splashed, if not quite poured, cold water on the idea).

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Oprahs Ultimate Favorite Things episode in 2010. Photograph: George Burns

Kendrick and her co-curator Rhea Combs worked with a team of scholars across African American studies, gender studies, religion and sociology to identify specific objects that would help them convey her life.

One room displays a room full of photos from Winfreys green room. On another wall, the living room-style furniture from her talkshow is displayed, along with clips from famous segments, like when she interviewed then senator Barack Obama, her friend and fellow Chicagoan whom she would help turn into the first black president of the United States.

Also displayed are diaries shes kept since age 15, which chronicle everything from her travails with boys in high school to thoughts on gratitude for her astronomical success.

The temporary exhibition isnt the only thing in the museum dedicated to Winfrey, who has donated generously to the museum, which was decades in the making and finally opened in 2016 on the National Mall to unprecedented crowds and rave reviews.

But Bunch says the museums decisions were made independent of such considerations. We drew a very hard bright line to show that this was not a show done for Oprah, done by Oprah, he said.

Bunch hopes Winfrey will help keep the museum drawing crowds even after the initial boom.

We want them to find new insights into both the TV show, but also into a woman, an African American woman who has chronicled an ever-changing America, and I would argue, has contributed mightily to a changed America, he said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jun/07/oprah-winfrey-museum-exhibition-career-history

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