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Her booming, unmistakable voice thunders throughout the Special Exhibitions gallery: “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!” For museum visitors, and millions around the world, it’s a welcome sound.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s latest exhibition is Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture. If you’ve ever listened to the incredible WBEZ podcast Making Oprah, this is like that but in a boldly tangible visual format. The showcase, which snakes around the gallery, carefully considers the impact of Oprah Winfrey and her many roles in our lives as TV viewers and culture consumers.
Watching Oprah contains too many fantastic objects and revelations to name, but the highlights include childhood photos, rarely seen snapshots from Oprah’s time on The Color Purple, her actual work desk from Harpo Studios, her Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a truly stunning wall with the names of every single episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. That’s 4,561 shows.
The exhibition captures the Oprah phenomenon from its humble, rural Mississippi beginnings to the all-encompassing force it is today. It’s split up into sections, first with “America Shapes Oprah,” spotlighting her as a daughter of the civil rights movement and era of change and, lest people forget, all the black women who paved the way for her—from Cathy Hughes and Dorothy Brunson to Diana Ross and The Supremes and Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols.
“We used to gather ‘round the TV and watch and scream and jump up and down: ‘Colored people on TV! Colored people on TV!” reads an Oprah quote on the wall.
The second section, “Oprah: The Early Years,” covers her experiences growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, and her radio and television career in Nashville, Baltimore, and Chicago in the ’70s and ’80s. The Oprah Winfrey Show section, naturally, documents the dominant daytime show, and what follows is “Oprah Shapes America,” chronicling how she became a major influencer, before concluding with “Oprah and You,” which explores her unprecedented ability to connect with viewers.
To see her young, sporting an array of hairstyles of the time—including, at one point, a fluffy afro—and exploring the world for typical local news stories in short video clips is a unique and delightful experience. We know she goes on to interview the likes of Nelson Mandela and President Barack Obama, and celebrate 25 years of television excellence. But there’s a sense that young Oprah couldn’t have predicted what was to come, and in that, the exhibition gives us a version of her we have never really seen before.
Of course, it’s also awe-inspiring to see a few Emmys displayed—the show won 47 Daytime Emmys, 2 Primetime Emmys, 12 NAACP Image Awards, 4 People’s Choice Awards, 8 GLAAD Media Awards, and 2 Online Film and Television Awards. And the fashion portion of the exhibition is well-crafted, full of the threads people remember and revere, like her red outfit from the car giveaway show, the Vera Wang gown she wore to the Legends Ball, and the gorgeous black dress that she gave a rousing speech in as she accepted her Cecil B. deMille Award at the Golden Globes earlier this year, the first black woman to do so.
At the show’s preview, museum director Lonnie Bunch III made it clear that this is not an exhibition for Oprah, but rather, one about Oprah. She did visit the show before it opened, but it was neither molded by her, nor created specifically for her. It was created for the millions who have watched her show—who lived and breathed her familial nature, who took comfort in that unmistakable voice. She attracted an average of 10 to 20 million viewers a day. Oprah fans and culture historians, this one’s for you.
The true impact of her genius is utterly immeasurable. But the exhibition does a standout job highlighting her journey so far, and takes us all along for the ride. At the very end of Watching Oprah, there is a book in which visitors can sign and write notes about what Oprah has meant to them. There’s no doubt it’s completely full by now.
At the National Museum of African American History and Culture to June 30, 2019.1400 Constitution Ave. NW. Free. (844) 750-3012. nmaahc.si.edu.