Designer dresses. Feathered hats. Beaded handbags.

The Goldstein Museum of Design's collection boasts almost 27,000 objects. But at any one time, in "two tiny galleries," you can see just 40 of them.

Not for long.

The University of Minnesota museum is digitizing the "range and richness" of its collection of 20th century clothing, accessories, figurines and furniture, said its director, Lin Nelson-Mayson.

Designers and stylists are already psyched about the photographs that will bring the project to life.

A two-person team is steaming, styling and lighting the objects and then photographing them -- "the way they're supposed to be," Nelson-Mayson said. "So it doesn't look like your closet or like your attic.

"You get the sense of what these objects really are."

On its Facebook page, the museum gives a preview: A white mannequin poses in a black silk dress with a hot pink portrait collar and cuffs. It's Geoffrey Beene from the 1970s. Then there's a 1960s beige-and-black hat, feathers teased forward, as if by the wind.

The project is funded by a two-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, but it will take twice that long. Once complete, students, scholars and fellow museums will be able to flip through photographs on a public site.

That will simplify the museum's work with graphic and apparel designers, who use the collection for inspiration. Being a muse takes considerable staff time. First, a staff member inquires about their interests, pulls garments from the collection and, inevitably, tries again.

"They might say, 'I'm interested in a little black dress from the 1940s with interesting ornamentation and cool sleeves,'" Nelson-Mayson said, laughing. "And that would be someone who really thought about it.

"Soon, they'll be able to give us examples from our own collection, which will help. Because, of course, their idea of cool sleeves might not be our idea of cool sleeves."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168