THE NDEBELE people of South Africa go through life in a glory of beadwork. Strings of magic beads protect their babies, sumptuous bead costumes adorn their women and majestic bead vestments honor their dead. The richness and beauty of this exuberant culture are celebrated in a sparkling exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

When Portuguese traders introduced beads into southern Africa in the 16th century, the Ndebele's consummate craftswomen quickly adapted traditional designs to the new medium, and beadwork began to enhance and signify everything from baskets to bridal veils. The exhibit includes more than 70 gorgeously decorated objects and garments produced over the past two centuries.

The art form not only survived but has flourished following the 1955 apartheid decree that drove blacks from South Africa's cities into dreary exurban "homelands." The Ndebele were banished to a dusty cinder-block ghetto called KwaNdebele. Since then, sales of beadwork to collectors and tourists have partly made up for lost city jobs.

It isn't clear from the exhibit text how this commercial production has affected Ndebele traditions. We're told on the one hand that the white South African government has promoted tourist sales, not out of a desire to help the Ndebele but as a way of emphasizing racial differences; and on the other hand, that the Ndebele continue their beadwork as a form of protest against the government.

These seemingly contradictory assertions are followed by this statement: "This exhibit is presented in solidarity with the struggle of progressive cultural forces in South Africa against apartheid."

Such quaint cant may be politically correct, but it's also a gratuitous and patronizing departure from the scholarly standards to be expected from a major museum.

NDEBELE BEADWORK -- Through Jan. 13 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive off Howard Street. 301/396-6310. Open 10 to 4 Tuesday through Friday (10 to 7 Thursdays) and 11 to 6 weekends. Free admission on Thursdays, and every day for those under 18; adults $3; seniors and students $2. Good wheelchair access.