Container: the box that changed the world

24 May 2019

The Australian National Maritime Museum’s ground-breaking exhibition Container – the box that changed the world is dedicated entirely to the history and impact of the humble shipping container.

Photo of Australian National Maritime Museum’s Container – the box that changed the world exhibition.
Container exhibition at Darling Harbour, Sydney. Image Australian National Maritime Museum

It’s no small claim to say that something as ordinary as a rectangular steel box could have fundamentally transformed the world and the way we live in it. The box in question is, of course, the standard ISO shipping container, pioneered by US trucking magnate Malcom McLean in 1956. Containers, which come in a variety of sizes, drive the global economy.

Understanding the role of the container and its rapid and ongoing rise not only brings the importance of shipping and related maritime industries into view, but is also, according to maritime historian Frank Broeze,‘one of the essential aspects of understanding globalisation’.1

The exhibition reveals the extraordinary distances travelled by even the simplest of items goes beyond the corrugated steel to reveal the history and diverse impacts of this revolutionary maritime invention.

Housed entirely within specially modified 20-foot containers, the exhibition quite literally takes visitors ‘inside the box’ to explore the economic, geographic, technical, environmental, social and cultural history and impact of containerisation.

Six containers, each of which takes one aspect of the container revolution as its theme, creates a series of inviting new spaces as walk-in exhibition modules and giant showcases.

The exhibition can be visited in any order, but the story begins near the main museum entrance, where a bright red container titled ‘Ship’ explores the invention and uptake of the container, the lives and work of the world’s 1.5 million seafarers and the shape of the shipping industry and ship technology today.

The remaining four walk-in containers look at our ports, trade, customs and quarantine, ocean health, and innovative container uses including art, architecture, emergency housing and urban farming.

The final container is customised to house a typical lounge/dining room. With a large outside facing window, this giant showcase details the transport history of an average home, revealing the extraordinary distances travelled by even the simplest of items and the complex global logistics that bring us our everyday goods.

When just the dining table – made from white oak grown and milled in Ohio, USA, and MDF (fibreboard) produced in Gia Lai province, Vietnam – has travelled at least 15,228 nautical miles (28,202 kilometres) to reach Australia, the scope of our globally entwined lives – and with it the role of the shipping container – comes into view.

The Container exhibit is currently touring NSW. Catch it at these locations:

17 May – 28 July 2019*

9 August – 27 October 2019*

*Dates were correct at time of publishing. For updates, please see the Sea Museum

Concept, Curator and Project Manager, Dr Mary-Elizabeth Andrews. Container is made possible by the generous support of the ANMM’s major sponsor NSW Ports, sponsors ACFS Port Logistics, DP World Australia, Maritime Container Services and Smit Lamnalco, supporters Shipping Australia and Transport for NSW, precinct partner Property NSW and container suppliers Royal Wolf. Supported by the United States Bicentennial Gift Fund.

Last Updated: 14 May 2019