The Smithsonian's 'on the air' museum

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Every year more of the world's inherited treasures vanish from the face of the earth. One mission of the Smithsonian Institution is to try to save as many of these vanishing treasures - cultural, physical, and spiritual - as possible and exhibit them for the enlightenment and enjoyment of the general public as well as the world of science.

Smithsonian World: The Last Flowers (PBS, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is a record of a kind of scientific rescue mission - the Smithsonian's race to save some of those vanishing treasures.

Host-author David McCullough, who seems always to be interested in what his interviewees have to say (a rare quality in broadcast journalism these days), takes viewers to Italy, the Soviet Union, and Kenya to document the Smithsonian efforts.

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In Italy, he observes intricate, painstaking efforts being made to restore and preserve da Vinci's ''Last Supper.'' The program also records the attempts to save the golden lion tamarin (a tiny orange-colored monkey)from extinction and visits a Soviet research centerwhere they are battling to preserve Przhevalski's wild horse.

The special takes viewers into Africa's tribal huts to observe folk remedies and faith healers, then meanders back to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (the old Carnegie mansion on New York's upper Fifth Avenue), now part of the Smithsonian, where hundreds of patent models were recently on display.

''Smithsonian World'' is a co-production of WETA, Washington, and the Smithsonian, funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which was founded by the man who also founded McDonnell Douglas Corporation. Executive producer Martin Carr has managed to pull together what might on the surface seem to be a grab bag of curious information and turn it into a solid,intellectually stimulating, interconnected museum on the air.

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