National Museum of African American History and Culture unveil Oprah exhibit

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Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture | Photos by Walter Larrimore, courtesy of the Smithsonian

WASHINGTON – When Oprah Winfrey closed her Harpo Studios in Chicago’s West Loop, she put some of its furnishings into storage.

Now a set from Winfrey’s talk show, which put her on the path to becoming a global figure and one of the most successful entertainment executives in the world, is among the artifacts in an exhibit opening on Friday at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “Watching Oprah, The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture.”

The 4,300-square-foot Oprah exhibition runs through June, 2019 and has three sections: “America Shapes Oprah, 1950s-1980s;” The Oprah Winfrey Show,” spawned in Chicago and “Oprah Shapes America.”

The daytime Oprah Winfrey Show, with its 4,561 episodes, was produced in Chicago for 25 years, a period where Winfrey also grew into a major philanthropist, actress, theatrical producer and cultural and moral influencer.

Here are 10 things to know about the Oprah exhibit:

• The “American Shapes Oprah” section traces the Winfrey story in the larger context of the unfolding civil rights struggle in the U.S.

• Winfrey moved to Chicago to host a local show on WLS, now known as ABC7. Hours before her show went national, Winfrey wrote in her diary — with some of her pages in the exhibit.

“Exactly eight hours before the national first show. I keep wondering how my life will change. If it will change. What all this means. Why have I been so blessed? Maybe going national was to help me realize that I have an important work or that this work is important. I just know that I must be pressed to the work of the high calling,” Winfrey wrote.

• Winfrey’s Harpo Studios on West Washington Street and North Carpenter was demolished in 2016 and is now the site of the newly opened McDonald’s corporate headquarters.

The exhibit includes a replica of an iconic Harpo Studios sign; a set with the chairs Winfrey used to interview guests; some audience seats and a camera.

• Artifacts in the exhibit also include one of the costumes Winfrey wore in her staring role in the 1985 film “The Color Purple” and the red suit she wore on one of her most famous shows, in 2004, where she gave away cars to audience members.

• Other artifacts are the daytime Emmy award for outstanding talk/service show host for 1986/1987 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to Winfrey in 2013 by President Barack Obama.

• Known for sharing her weight struggles very publicly, the exhibit has the Calvin Klein jeans she wore in 1988, which appear to be from a thin period.

• The first time Winfrey saw the completed exhibit was on Wednesday, when she did a walk through with her best friend, “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King, taping a segment for King’s show.

King said Winfrey told her, “How many people are alive who get exhibits?”

• Winfrey, a philanthropist, donated $21 million for the construction of the museum; a theater in the museum bears her name.

• Museum Director Lonnie Bunch III, a former president of the Chicago Historical Society told, “This was an exhibition chosen by the museum, created by the museum. Oprah and her staff played very little role in shaping the content.”

“…The reality is we drew a very hard bright line to say that this was not a show done for Oprah, or by Oprah. It’s a show that wrestles with broader questions that uses Oprah as a lens to get it there.”

• The financial support came from MGM Resorts International, Target, Bank of America and FedEx.

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