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Oprah Winfrey exhibition opens Friday at National Museum of African American History and Culture

“Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture,” opens Friday at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture,” opens Friday at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A new temporary exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will feature footage of Oprah Winfrey, who worked early in her career as a Baltimore news anchor for WJZ.

“Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” opens Friday and runs through June 2019 at the museum, located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue in Washington.

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Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, drawing critical acclaim and a scramble for free tickets online. Winfrey donated $13 million toward its creation, and a theater inside is named after her.

The exhibition explores American culture through the lens of Winfrey’s eponymous TV show. According to the museum’s website, it features artifacts from her Chicago studio and personal collection alongside video and photographs.

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For Oprah Winfrey, in town this week while making a movie, there's still part a part of her that regards Baltimore as home.

Siobhan Hagan, founder of the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Regional Moving Image Archive, which owns the rights to the entire WJZ archive, said she provided archival footage to the museum, which the Smithsonian helped to digitize.

"MARMIA is so grateful to have had the Smithsonian's assistance in digitizing items from our WJZ-TV Collection, and we are extremely excited to have footage on display in the Oprah Winfrey exhibit. Oprah's time at WJZ-TV was tremendously influential: both to her career, to the broadcasting profession, and to Baltimore,” Hagan said.

In many ways, the story of Winfrey as a media mogul begins in Baltimore. She has called her time here “the greatest growing period of my adult life.” She arrived at age 22, and in 2011, she joked to The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik that when she arrived, “I was as close to 'The Beverly Hillbillies' as I could be.”

After a year as a news anchor she began co-hosting “People Are Talking” with Richard Sher in 1978.

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After her time in Charm City, Winfrey realized that while TV was her medium, TV news was not.

She recalled to Zurawik being dressed down by a supervisor for bringing blankets to a family whose home had burned down in a fire. She shouldn't make herself part of their story, he told her. Though she understood on principle, she said, "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."

From Eyewitness News: Oprah Winfrey's 1978 profile of a country store in Glenelg, Maryland. (Courtesy of MARMIA)

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