It’s no small claim 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 actually come in a variety of sizes, are the drivers of 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, it is also, according to maritime historian Frank Broeze, “one of the essential aspects of understanding globalisation”.*

The free exhibition, Container – The box that changed the world, 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 our visitors ‘inside the box’ to explore the economic, geographic, technical, environmental, social and cultural history, and impact of containerisation.

Credit: Andrew Frolows/ANMM

Six containers, each of which takes one aspect of the container revolution as its theme, are scattered around the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, creating a series of inviting new spaces as walk-in exhibition modules and giant showcases. By utilising these outdoor spaces, the exhibition connects with the history of the precinct and its transformation during the era of containerisation and beyond. The exhibition also takes a peek behind the scenes at Port Botany, one of Australia’s busiest ports and the gateway for 99 per cent of New South Wales’ container demand.

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. Moving around to the Wharf 7 forecourt adjacent Pyrmont Park, the remaining five 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 window facing the street, this giant showcase details the transport history of an average home, revealing the extraordinary distances travelled by 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, US, and MDF (fibreboard) produced in Gia Lai province, Vietnam, has travelled at least 15,228 nautical miles (28,202km) to reach Australia, the scope of our globally entwined lives – and with it the role of the shipping container – comes into view.  

Credit: Andrew Frolows/ANMM

Container is free and will be open daily until late 2018, before touring locations across NSW. It has been made possible by the generous support of major sponsor NSW Ports, sponsors ACFS Port Logistics, Maritime Container Services, DP World Australia and Smit Lamnalco; supporters Transport for NSW and Shipping Australia; precinct partner Property NSW; and container suppliers Royal Wolf. It is supported by the United States Bicentennial Gift Fund.  

For further information, visit .

Edited from articles by Dr Mary-Elizabeth Andrews, first published in Signals, the quarterly magazine of the Australian National Maritime Museum, issues 117 (December 2016) and 120 (September 2017). Reproduced with permission.

*Broeze, Frank, The globalisation of the oceans: containerisation from the 1950s to the present, St. John’s, Nfld, International Maritime Economic History Association, 2002, p. 257

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