Media mogul Oprah Winfrey is getting her own exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and her career beginnings in Baltimore make an appearance.
With more than 240 artifacts, three main exhibit sections and various media displays, “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” opens Friday, exploring Winfrey’s many accomplishments, trials and tribulations over 4,300 square feet.
A portion of the exhibit called “Oprah: The Early Years” documents her time in Baltimore from 1976 to 1983, where a startling pivot in her career — a demotion from the news desk at WJZ-TV — led her to her calling hosting a daytime talk show.
In a 2011 interview with Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik, Oprah called her time here “the greatest growing period of my adult life.” She arrived at age 22, and she joked that when she arrived, “I was as close to 'The Beverly Hillbillies' as I could be.” After her time in Charm City, Winfrey realized that while TV was her medium, TV news was not.
"By the time I left Baltimore, I was solidly aware that I no longer wanted to just do television news. I was very uncomfortable doing television news,” she told Zurawik.
The exhibit includes a 1977 check Winfrey wrote for $28.91 — 10 percent of her earnings — to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Upton, where she tithed weekly. Another check used to pay for a visit to a New York salon to straighten her hair the same year (at the suggestion of her managers) is also featured in the display case near a head shot of Winfrey, who was sporting a natural afro. On the check, she sums up the disastrous experience in three words: “Hair fell out.”
After a year as a news anchor, she began co-hosting “People Are Talking” with Richard Sher in 1978, commemorated in the exhibit with a “People are Talking” tote bag and a contract Winfrey signed in 1980 to begin her new job. WJZ offered her $75,000 to $95,000 for her new position, with the opportunity for more should the show be syndicated. A video installation in the exhibit shows clips from her time on the TV show.
A commencement speech Winfrey delivered at Goucher College in 1981 is also featured in a museum display case. Winfrey boldly titled it “THE FEMALE FACTOR/POWER AND POWERLESS,” which begins by discussing about how intimidated she was about speaking at the college, but later ramps up to female empowerment, according to curators.
A beauty-makeover feature on Winfrey from a January 1982 issue of the Sun Magazine also makes an appearance. A couple of years later, Winfrey would move to Chicago, where she would host “AM Chicago,” which catapulted her into her 25-year reign as host of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Memorabilia from “AM Chicago,” later renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” include a journal entry from Winfrey, describing her wonderment and feeling of greater purpose just hours before it become nationally syndicated.
“Midnight exactly the day before national 1st show. I keep wondering how my life will change if it will change -- what all this means -- why I have been so blessed,” she wrote. “... I keep thinking that I really am chosen to do work of the master. Called out to be a witness.”
Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s founding director,
and other museum curators said it was their hope to capture Winfrey’s goal of greater purpose in the exhibit. The trio worked with scholars from various disciplines to shape the exhibit to depict Winfrey’s history of speaking candidly about women and race; her experiences with sexual abuse, weight gain and body image; and the evolution from TV host to media mogul and pop culture icon.
Winfrey donated at least $13 million to the museum, which also has a theater named after her, but Bunch said curators were adamant about maintaining the exhibit as the museum’s project.
"We drew a very hard, bright line to say that this was not a show done for Oprah [or] done by Oprah. It's a show which wrestles with broader questions," he said, adding that Winfrey would likely see the exhibit for the first time before the opening.
Highlights of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” section of the exhibit include an awe-worthy wall, filled with the 4,561 titles of every show Winfrey recorded over 25 years; original set furniture said to have seated nearly 400 guests; and the nostalgia-inducing highlight reel, including reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict, Winfrey’s introduction of her “steady boyfriend” Stedman Graham, a memorable duet with musical icon Tina Turner, the introduction to Oprah’s book club, and Winfrey’s visit to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Other must-see items include Winfrey’s desk at Harpo Studios, Emmy awards and picks from her closet over the years, including the black Versace gown she wore to the Golden Globes earlier this year as the first black woman to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Award, which is also featured in the museum.
Toward the end, the exhibit looks at Winfrey’s influence and impact on pop culture, a realm where, as the actress Reese Witherspoon once put it, her name alone can be used as a verb, an adjective and a feeling.
Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.
If you go
The “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” exhibit opens at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture Friday. The exhibit is open during museum hours of 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. 1400 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. Free. Advanced passes are sold out through September, but same-day passes can be requested online starting at 6:30 a.m. Walk-up passes are available at 1 p.m. on weekdays, and on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 a.m. in September. nmaahc.si.edu.
BEST OF BALTIMORE INSIDER