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It's not enough to put curious objects on display, says Glass. Rather, the museum's goal should be to offer the objects as gateways into the vibrant lives of people who came before us. In myriad ways, the museum illustrates how Americans have overcome obstacles and survived crises such as the Civil War and the Great Depression, and that we not only survived the hard times but resolved many difficult issues. The American dream offered no land of milk and honey but a place of opportunity for those who dared to seek it. Yet inevitably one group's triumph could be another's distress. Thus after exhibits celebrating the American Revolution, the museum points out the provocative challenges that remained: while we won the struggle for independence, that victory left unfinished business—in the fate of Native American peoples, the institutionalizing of slavery, and the second- class status of women.

Glass hopes the new museum will "let the visitor be more inspired by our objects—inspired to learn more, and to explore who we are as Americans." Virtual visitors seemed to be doing that even before the doors reopened in November. Before the $85-million renovation, NMAH could count on 3 million visitors a year; now its history-centered Web site (americanhistory.si.edu) has been getting 15 million hits, and its newsletter's subscription base is on the march.

Another challenge remains. As actual visitors and virtual ones gain a sense of inspiration and discovery, the museum's success will lie in their desire to learn more about what history can teach us. After all, we ourselves will be seen one day as denizens of the living past, people who faced the challenges that arose, then prevailed or failed, or did some of each.

Philip Kopper