Last week the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture opened a new exhibit titled “Watching Oprah”. Since it’s opening September 2016, the museum has had a waiting list that spans months. Fortunately I have been able to visit the museum twice. For those of you who have not had a chance, I suggest you get there before June 2019 when the Watching Oprah exhibition closes.
I’ve known Oprah almost 6 years now, but it will never change the fact that I literally grew up with The Oprah Winfrey Show. The show became nationally syndicated in 1986. I was born in 1985. There’s not a moment of my childhood where I don’t recall The Oprah Winfrey Show being part of our home.
I still find myself at times humming the original theme song composed by Quincy Jones. There was not a major event in pop culture that The Oprah Winfrey Show did not cover. Even a celebrity’s level of fame was measured based on their appearance on the couch with Ms. Winfrey. It goes without saying that when I found out about the museum opening an exhibit dedicated to The Oprah Winfrey Show that I did everything in my power to get there.
I live in DC so physically getting to the museum was no issue. However, as I previously stated, the museum has a waiting list that spans months for entry. Please take note that all military members with a common access card can enter the museum any day after 10am with one guest. Once I found this out I immediately notified a friend of mine who is equally an Oprah fan and we headed to the museum.
Upon arriving at the exhibit, I was impressed with the history that was covered. I believe it is important to understand the pop culture that shaped a person when trying to understand them. Of course it highlighted the integration that was happening in our nation. For those of you who do not know, Ms. Winfrey was born the same year Brown v. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court.
This meant she was never subjected to the segregation in public schools that was previously the case in Mississippi. They also began to highlight other women who were in entertainment during Ms. Winfrey’s upbringing. There was dedication to Ms. Diana Ross, Ms. Nichelle Nichols, & Ms. Diahann Carroll. This also included one of my personal favorites, Ms. Nina Simone. All of these women were in the forefront of pop culture during the formative years of Ms. Winfrey. Another woman that was not highlighted in the exhibit that all Oprah Winfrey fans know was an integral influence on her life is Mary Tyler Moore. I’m not sure if she was not mentioned because of African American element of the museum, but I do feel she should have been mentioned during this part of the exhibit.
The exhibit then went on to highlight some of Ms. Winfrey’s early days in journalism. This included photos of her interviewing people as a teenager and copy of her college degree from Tennessee State University.
They also highlighted some of Ms. Winfrey’s early days on television and in film. The dress that she wore while playing Ms. Sophia in the film The Color Purple was featured during this time. The film in and of itself is an American classic. The reminder that she began her film career with this spoke volumes to me. Everything was uphill from there.
You may or may not recall, but Ms. Winfrey was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Color Purple. During her press tour before the Oscars, she appeared on Johnny Carson’s late night show taped in Los Angeles. The exhibit displays the shoes she wore for that appearance and tells the story of how the Rodeo Drive sales associate almost did not want to sell Ms. Winfrey the shoes. Unfortunately, this would not be the last time she would experience this treatment despite her achieved success.
Following her early years, the exhibit shifts to the 25 years of The Oprah Winfrey Show. They recreated the first set of the show even with similar audience seats. When Harpo began its closing there was an auction of the seats from the audience. I still regret not buying one of those chairs as a keepsake. It was nice to see them memorialized in the museum.
The walls at this point of the exhibit are lined with the titles and dates aired of all 4,561 episodes of the show over the course of the 25 year run. I stood there in complete awe while other around me searched for specific episodes they recalled. This is also around the point in the exhibit where old clips of the show began to play on loop. The clips would be played throughout the duration of the exhibit.
There was a replica of the famous Harpo sign that was displayed outside the studio in Chicago. Initially I did a double take thinking it was the real sign. However, having seen the sign in person I realized the one in the museum was much smaller. It was still a great replica though.
The next space instantly became my favorite part of the exhibit. It is called The Green Room. Here you saw photos of countless celebrities who appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. There was no way to walk out of that room without remembering and acknowledging the influence this show and Ms. Winfrey herself had on pop culture. There were photos of celebrities I forgot even existed. It brought back memories about The Oprah Winfrey Show and life in general as I browsed the photos of various eras of guests.
The rest of the exhibit continued to take us down a course on memory lane. Remember those posters that were in all elementary schools in the early 90s that said “READ” across the top? They featured pictures of someone or something from pop culture. I forgot there was one of those posters up in my school of Oprah until I saw it in the museum. That was truly a highlight for me. Some of the books from Oprah’s Book Club were also featured. This also included the controversial piece by James Frey. There was also mention of Phil Donahue and the unwarranted rivalry between his talk show and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
The exhibit then went on to discuss the many talk show hosts that came and went while The Oprah Winfrey Show was still in production to include Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, and Montel Williams. It truly highlighted her influence and why Ms. Winfrey became the Queen of Daytime Talk!
There were also fan letters to the Angel Network as well as highlighted stories of the work The Angel Network did through The Oprah Winfrey Show. This included Hurricane Katrina relief and educational support. This is also where Oprah’s Favorite Things was highlighted. While OWS was still on the air, this was my favorite part of the show every year. I used to always wish I could take my mom to a taping of it, but that never happened.
The exhibit also mentions other giveaways OWS had to include the trip to Australia for the audience members and when Ms. Winfrey gave away all of those Pontiac G6’s. “You get a car, you get a car, you get a car…” I’m sure this is a moment most are familiar with.
As the highlights of The Oprah Winfrey Show began to transition to the final days, even more of Ms. Winfrey’s philanthropic work was highlighted. This included her opening of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and her collective $12M donations to my alma mater, Morehouse College. There was also the featured cap & gown worn by Ms. Winfrey when she spoke at Spelman College’s commencement ceremony. Shoutout to SpelHouse!
The next part of the exhibit housed Ms. Winfrey’s desk from her office. It also featured an old business card and the evolution of her cell phones throughout the year. One of the cell phone cases that was displayed has OW monogrammed on it. According to the caption, this was a gift from Ms. Winfrey’s best friend, Ms. Gayle King. Also, Ms. Winfrey’s building pass was displayed. This business centered aspect of the exhibit was the perfect precursor to the next part of the exhibit. It was followed by highlights of Ms. Winfrey’s business ventures to include Lee Daniel’s Oscar-winning film Precious and the Tony Award winning Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple.
The exhibit wrapped up featuring what I’ll refer to as “Super Soul clips” of Ms. Winfrey discussing her beliefs in that which is greater than us. In 2013, President Barack Obama bestowed the highest civilian honor in this country upon Ms. Winfrey. That is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This was displayed as well. That was an intense moment for me to understand relatively speaking, she’s young to have made such a huge impact globally. This was followed by the Cecil B. DeMille Award that Ms. Winfrey received this year at the Golden Globes.
The dress and shoes she wore were also displayed with the award. Her speech from that night made such an impact on the country everyone thought she was going to run for president. She has since denied those claims. However, I understand that at any point Ms. Winfrey can change her mind and decide to run. I also understand it would take God Himself (or Herself) to convince Ms. Winfrey to travel down that path.
The final moment of the exhibit is a book where attendees can write about the impact Oprah Winfrey and her legacy have had on their lives. I believe I spent more time reading what others had to say than I did writing anything. I’m blessed to say there’s nothing I haven’t said or at least put out there to Ms. Winfrey herself that I wanted to say. All I can say at this point is continue to let the light shine brightly through you for all to see.
I definitely recommend this exhibit to any and every one! You don’t have to be an Oprah fan at all to absorb the historical impact that her show continues to have on American culture. For all of you who listen to podcasts, I’d recommend listening to “Making Oprah” by WBEZ Chicago in conjunction with your visit. It will definitely enhance your experience.