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Thursday
May072015

Pill Fill

Pill Fill is an garment created by contemporary Indian artist Vivan Sundaram.  The garment was part of the exhibit Making Strange: Gagawaka + Post Mortem that is running at the Fowler Museum from April-September 2015.  The outfit consists of a base fabric with hundreds of pockets that are filled with colorful pills, capsules and other pharmaceuticals.  There were 2 problems with delivering the garment to the Fowler Museum: 1) the original pills were decomposing and staining the fabric, and 2) the pills could not be exported into the US because they are considered contraband.  Mr.  Sundaram made a new base garment without pills or stains for the exhibition, and it was up to us at the museum to find similarly colored pills to replace in the pockets.   My job was to figure out why pills would decompose and to prevent staining and decomposition while on display and in the future.  I did some research and no one has ever published a paper on conserving pharmaceuticals.  Contemporary artist are often playing with new, non-traditional materials, and us conservators are always trying to keep up.  So how were we going to preserve the new pills and capsules? 

I set up accelerated light tests to determine at what exposure level the pill and capsule dyes would fade, and created microclimates of varying relative humidities (RH) to determine safe ranges.  At higher humidities, the pills began to swell and sweat, which was probably the cause of the staining on the original garment.  Interestingly, the capsules never decomposed even at 95% RH; therefore, I think it's an enzymatic or acidic breakdown in the stomach, not hydrolysis.  Coatings were tested on the pills and capsules and the coated products were then tested in the RH chambers and for lightfastness.  One layer of coating helped extend the safe RH range by 10%, so we decided to coat every pill and capsule that was used in the garment.  Once I have a little more time, I will probably write up a small paper to submit for publication.

To see a Fowler Museum produced video of the conservation process for Pill Fill, click here: www.fowler.ucla.edu/videos/conserving-pill-fill-2011-vivan-sundaram

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