See the rise of Oprah in new display

Titled Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show And American Culture, the exhibition features video clips, interview segments, movie costumes and personal photographs to explore what has influenced Oprah Winfrey (above).
Titled Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show And American Culture, the exhibition features video clips, interview segments, movie costumes and personal photographs to explore what has influenced Oprah Winfrey (above).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington has kicked off a new exhibition on influential media entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey

WASHINGTON • Before Oprah Winfrey became a household name with her talk show, she fronted a television show in Maryland where she was paid less than her co-host.

This was in the late 1970s.

She worked up the courage to speak to her boss, but he did not feel there was any unfairness.

That episode later fuelled her insistence that the producers on her own talk show be paid adequately. If not, she would walk out.

Winfrey has indeed made a mark as a powerful media executive and Hollywood jet-setter who transformed daytime television, launched literary careers and convened difficult conversations about race and gender.

But she is also an African-American activist whose contributions to American culture are now feted in a new exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Opening last Friday and running through June next year, Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show And American Culture features video clips, interview segments, movie costumes and personal photographs and journals to explore what has influenced the 64-year-old.

"What's interesting is the same way America thought about Walter Cronkite - you could trust Cronkite and his opinion - they trust Oprah," said museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III. "An African-American woman becomes the person America turns to."

Cronkite anchored CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981.

Curators Rhea Combs and Kathleen Kendrick worked with Winfrey and her staff on arranging loans for the exhibition and on fact-checking and background information.

The show balances Winfrey's humble personal story with her achievements.

"We're providing a context for understanding not only who she is, but also how she became a global figure and how she is connected to broader stories and themes," Ms Kendrick said.

The first section of the show explores Winfrey's childhood and early career and how the cultural shifts of the 1950s and 1960s informed her worldview.

Ms Combs said: "Civil rights, the women's movement, the media and television landscape - she's at this distinct intersection of all of these dynamic moments."

The middle section looks at the 25-year run (1986 to 2011) of the Oprah Winfrey Show, the highest-rated talk show in history.

"She used television as a social medium, convening conversations and creating these interactive experiences with people," said Ms Kendrick. "She's offering lessons for living, social guidance in a way."

The third section looks at Winfrey's role as cultural influencer and taste-maker in the movies she has made, the books she promoted in her television book club and her philanthropic work.

The timing of the exhibition was planned to coincide with the last quarter of the museum's second year when officials expected a dip in attendance. Instead, interest remains strong, with weekend crowds regularly at capacity.

Since opening on Sept 24, 2016, it has welcomed 3.8 million visitors.

"I really thought after the first year, it'd be business as usual, so at the end of the second year, I'd do something to give it visibility," Mr Bunch said.

He hopes the event will encourage visitors to think about what Winfrey has represented over the years. "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."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2018, with the headline 'See the rise of Oprah in new display'. Print Edition | Subscribe