In Smithsonian's 35 years the magazine has played a unique role not only in the lives of its readers but also in the affairs of the Smithsonian Institution—and in American journalism. Smithsonian has endeavored to offer perspective on the turns and twists of history, on achievements in the sciences and arts, on the profound beauty of nature, on society's problems, on human progress of all sorts. It has attempted to reflect on our home planet, the prehistoric world and the farthest reaches of the universe.
Those are lofty ambitions, but they have been achieved with considerable success. More than 5,500 articles have appeared in Smithsonian, or easily some 10 million words, and at least 40,000 photographs. Shelved side by side, a complete set of the magazine stretches 12 feet. The magazine's writers, photographers and editors choose each story, each picture and each word to illuminate what's startlingly new or everlastingly significant or undeniably entertaining, always with readers' interests in mind.
From the time that a pre-publication announcement proclaimed that the magazine would "probe Man's disasters and...join the battle for his improvement," it has tried to focus on people and events that matter. That is what the magazine has most in common with the Smithsonian's museums, research centers and scholars. Smithsonian was never intended to be about the Institution, though it does cover goings-on here, but rather of the Institution. By reaching out to more than seven million readers each month, the magazine is especially effective at fulfilling founding benefactor James Smithson's charter to increase and diffuse knowledge.
Last month's issue, for instance, featured articles about Henri Matisse, the debate about oil drilling in Alaska, the restoration of Rome, animal camouflage, the Dead Sea, Andrew Jackson and breeding bananas. Such variety, however much it entices readers, does present a challenge for Smithsonian's publisher, because the magazine doesn't fit into any conventional marketing category. But eclecticism is a Smithsonian hallmark, along with high quality, which is evident from the loyalty of our readers and the awards and other professional distinctions that the magazine has earned over the years for its writing, photography and design.
Smithsonian helps achieve James Smithson's goal of increasing and diffusing knowledge in other ways as well. The magazine, part of Smithsonian Business Ventures since the enterprise group was formed in 1999, has consistently been a major source of financial support to the Institution, providing over the decades hundreds of millions of dollars for Smithsonian research, exhibitions, collections and other initiatives.
Another way of gauging the magazine's success is to recall how it has shaped events. There are numerous indications that the world would indeed be a somewhat different place if not for Smithsonian. Wildlife protections have been strengthened, historic buildings saved, artists and performers celebrated, the needs of struggling cultural organizations brought to the public's attention and lands and artifacts preserved at least in part because of the magazine's stories.
Magazine staffers receive about 500 letters and e-mails a month (and they make an effort to answer every one). Criticisms and quibbles are among the missives, and even those are welcome. But there never fail to be expressions of gratitude: "Smithsonian is the only magazine whose every article I read." "In an age when shock value determines the content of many magazines, it is heartening to know that there is still a magazine out there that caters to more discriminating tastes." "I read every informative, amusing and interesting word. You can't keep that up, can you?"
The magazine surely can and will, for Smithsonian, at 35, is just entering its prime.