Friday 16th Nov, 2018

SPECIAL REPORT: Containerisation

Photo: Shutterstock and Jim Wilson
Photo: Shutterstock and Jim Wilson

THE SECRETS of containers will be laid bare on October 26 when the Australian National Maritime Museum opens the doors to its exhibition, “Container: the box that changed the world”.

The exhibition will be held in six 20-foot containers placed on the Wharf 7 forecourt near the museum building and also near the Museum’s front entrance.
All of the containers will be packed with things relating to the history and impact of shipping containers since they became the cornerstone of world merchandise trade, and visitors will be able to enter and walk around in all but one of them.

The six boxes

Australian National Maritime Museum curator Dr Mary-Elizabeth Andrews, who is at the helm of the project, told Lloyd’s List Australia that each one of the boxes would be dedicated to its own theme.

“Each of the containers have short, one word titles emblazoned across the outside, as well as big graphics to add appeal for when they’re closed,” she said.

The container that will be in front of the building is to be called “Ship”, and Dr Andrews said it was intended to serve as an introduction, but the exhibition is designed so anyone can go to any of the containers and understand its contents.

“The one called ‘Ship’ looks at the invention of the container’ it does a really brief look at break-bulk cargo loading coming out of the Second World War, and then looks at the invention and the Malcolm MacLean story,” she said.

“Then we cover the first large containership coming to Australia, OCL’s Encounter Bay in 1969, which came into Sydney Harbour to White Bay’s newly opened container terminal.

“And then we go and we cut to the contemporary, looking at seafarers and contemporary maritime industry and ship technology.”

And that’s just in one container. Another one covers the ports. Dr Andrews said the ‘Ports’ container would have historic images of Darling Harbour displayed as if they were windows looking out at the working wharves.

“The images are really evocative, and they are local, so when the exhibition travels, we can swap those images out for local ones,” Dr Andrews said.

And then, in the same container, you can learn about the first container terminals including Port Elizabeth in Newark, as the first in the world, followed by a look at White Bay, Swanson Dock and Fremantle as the first three container ports that were built in Australia.

“And then, we look at the move away from Sydney Harbour out to Port Botany, which is now the dedicated gateway for 99% of containers that come to New South Wales,” she said.

“Then, we look at how ports operate today and we have some profiles on port workers today which were put together through our partners DP World Australia.”

The container called “Ocean” will be pink, but the reason for the colour is a closely guarded secret. Dr Andrews said people would have to come along to find out what the significance of the colour is.

Another container will cover trade, customs and quarantine, looking at the cold chain as well.

The fifth container looks at alternative uses for shipping containers and architecture projects.

“The lifespan of a container is about 10 to 15 years, and actually, re-purposing them is a more sustainable outcome than trying to recycle the steel,” Dr Andrews said.

“And, with the world container fleet at around 20m containers, these kinds of uses are creating sustainable solutions, even if it doesn’t appear to be a directly maritime-related topic.”

Dr Andrews said the last container would be a bit different to the other five, in that visitors won’t be able to go inside, but will be able to look inside with one wall turned into a window – this container is called “Things”.

“We’re setting up a lounge dining room; a typical everyday (but nice looking) dining room complete with breakfast on the table, coffee, coffee plunger, couch, table, rugs, et cetera,” she said.

And with all these things researchers at the Museum are teasing out the entire transport history of every single object in the room.

“What we’re trying to do is take every major component in every item in that room and trace it back to its origin,” Dr Andrews said.

“And in that way, we want to be able to show the distance travelled by sea to bring you your everyday objects – and I hope that in this way people can get an instant insight into the world of shipping.”

Because space is limited in a 20-foot container the Museum plans to have digital stories around the exhibition.

“Anything we haven’t included we hope to get the chance to do little dedicated stories on,” Dr Andrews said.

“It’s here for a year, so we’ll keep it active online and tease out the stuff we couldn’t fit in the containers.”

On the road

The exhibition is scheduled to be at the ANMM’s Pyrmont location for nine to 12 months, starting at the end of October, and then it is going to embark on a New South Wales regional tour, with specific locations still to be announced.

“We’re trying to go to locations where there is a connection with the state’s major industries that go out in container, so we can have some kind of dialogue about trade,” Dr Andrews said.

“A lot of the Museum’s exhibitions will tour to maritime museums or museums with maritime-related themes, or museums in coastal regions.

“This is an opportunity to point out that even if you live in the spot that’s furthest from the coast that you can possibly get in Australia, even then you have some connection to the sea, and that connection is containers.”

Taking an exhibition in containers on the road would be the easiest thing in the world at first thought, but Dr Andrews said it wasn’t so simple.

“Usually when we travel with an exhibition, we have two containers worth, whereas this is six, and they’re also modified, which means that the irony is that they would have to travel as break bulk if we went overseas,” she said.

“But Royal Wolf [who are supplying the containers] has been great about that; they’re making customised hatches so the containers are structurally okay to travel, they’re just not certified as containers.”

The impetus

Dr Andrews said the idea for the exhibition came from several places and other exhibitions she had worked on previously.

In Germany, Dr Andrews was involved in an exhibition on the Anthropocene (which is the idea that the Earth has entered a new geological phase determined by human influence – Dr Andrews said there was a lot of contention about whether the idea is scientifically valid).

“My colleague had the idea of putting a container in the exhibition because there’s some thought around the invention of the container being a massive symbol of the globalisation of the late 20th Century,” she said.

Then, as this container was ticking away in the back of her head, Dr Andrews was working on another exhibition looking at Australian-US maritime connections, one of which was the ice trade out of Boston.

“Ships would bring massive blocks of ice packed in sawdust down from New England in the mid-19th Century,” she said.

“This got me thinking about refrigeration and reefers and the significance of that kind of technology.”

She said one could take the story of the reefer back to that trade.

“We can say, ‘look the earliest form of refrigerated transport by sea was these big ice blocks coming from New England’,” she said.

“Now you can track these boxes’ temperature and airflow by satellite from your desk and ensure what ends up at one end is as fresh as it was packed at the beginning.”

As the exhibition will be outdoors and free, the Dr Andrews expects to get many visitors who would already be in the Darling Harbour and Pyrmont areas, but she hopes to also attract people from all over the state.

“To boil it down into one idea, I would love for people to walk away from this exhibition and the next time they see a container, they’ll notice it and they’ll have some idea of its significance,” Dr Andrews said.

“It’s about understanding the fact that this is how you get 99% of the things you live with in your home and the way you live your life is thoroughly dependent on maritime trade and maritime transport.”

From the print edition August 10, 2017



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