Closing in on 40 years

Our title is our greatest asset. Affiliating us with our parent organization—one dedicated, in the words of founder James Smithson, to "the increase and diffusion of knowledge"—Smithsonian confers authority, integrity, responsibility and trust. In a time that has seen the deaths of too many fine magazines, our affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution underlies our continuing good health. Not a day goes by that I'm not grateful for it.

But our title may create misperceptions. Some people—nonreaders, I like to think—assume we're a mouthpiece for the Institution. Not so. We are of the Institution, not about it. We choose our stories—and how we execute them—on their journalistic merits. That's true even for "Around the Mall," about Institutional goings-on; before selecting a story for that department we ask ourselves if another Washington-based culture magazine would cover it. Another misperception is that we're subsidized by the Institution. Also untrue. In fact, we have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to Institution coffers over our nearly four decades of publication.

Some people seem surprised by our hefty circulation: two million. "But," I hear them say, "the magazine comes with membership to the Institution." This is true. But the main reason that members give for joining the Institution is to get the magazine.

Where we do reflect the Institution is in our shared interests. Like our curious parent, we are fascinated by history, natural history, science, art, archaeology and world cultures. A successful issue of the magazine, like this one, mixes those interests in pleasing proportions: Joshua Hammer's investigation into the illegal trade of historic artifacts from Mali; Robert M. Poole's history of the origins of Arlington National Cemetery; Peter Alsop's warning of a potentially devastating invasion of beetles in New England; Henry Adams' probe into a possible hidden message in a Jackson Pollock masterpiece; Pico Iyer's wry report on a visit to Alaska; Fergus M. Bordewich's account of the restoration of a portrait of Henry Clay to the U.S. Capitol; and Richard B. Woodward's critique of Ansel Adams' color photography. A good mix.

The story of our founding, which I've told here before, bears repeating: when then-Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley discussed the magazine with founding editor Edward K. Thompson, Ripley suggested it should be "about whatever the Institution was interested in—or might be interested in." Thompson added: "And should be?" Happily for all, Ripley agreed.

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