What percentage of goods do you think travel by sea? DP World Australia container terminal, Port Botany, photo Glenn Duffus, 2015. Reproduced courtesy DP World Australia.
By the numbers
Shipping accounts for over 99% of Australia’s total merchandise trade by mass. A staggering 7.8 million containers move through Australian ports each year. In today’s global world you may have had coffee from Brazil or a smoothie containing frozen fruit from China. You could be wearing clothes made in India, watching a TV made in Japan while sitting on a sofa containing wood from Argentina on a laminate floor manufactured in Sweden. All of this has been made possible by a rectangular steel box – the humble shipping container.
The global standardisation is the reason why the humble shipping container has done so much to stimulate international trade. Image: DP World, Port Botany. Photo by Sarah Keayes/The Photo Pitch.
An economy of standards
Imagine that you are a shipper—a company with freight to ship. You’ve won an order to export four hundred ceiling fans to Senegal. You pack each fan into a paperboard carton, load the cartons into a shipping container, and send the container on its way. But when the vessel arrives in West Africa, there’s no way to lift your container off the ship. It seems the Australian container doesn’t fit with Senegalese cranes. The ship sails onward, and your fans remain on board.
Fortunately for the world economy, this story is a fantasy. If you’re a real shipper, you can be confident that the container holding your goods can fit aboard any ship, can be lifted by any crane, and can be transferred seamlessly to any truck or train anywhere in the world. Everything is standard—and standards are why the container has done so much to stimulate international trade.
One of 999 boxes being unloaded from the Yang Ming Singapore. Image: Andrew Frolows/ANMM.
In today’s global world you may have drunk coffee from Brazil or a smoothie containing frozen fruit from China. You could be wearing clothes made in India, watching a TV made in Japan while sitting on a sofa containing wood from Argentina on a laminate floor manufactured in Sweden. All of this has been made possible by a rectangular steel box – the humble shipping container.
It’s a wet and windy morning as the Yang Ming Singapore arrives in Sydney, ready to discharge and load almost 2,000 of the 2.3 million containers that will pass through Port Botany Container Terminal this year. Curator and project manager Dr Mary-Elizabeth Andrews takes a look on board.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the ‘invention’ of the shipping container. As a cornerstone of the global economy, the humble steel box has revolutionised the way we live in profound ways. From the food on our plates to our clothes and mobile phones, there are very few items today that don’t travel to us by sea.
European, American and Australian ships used Hong Kong as a centre of trade in the 19th century. This painting depicts the American vessel S.R. BEARSE as it enters Hong Kong Harbour with fully rigged sails. ANMM Collection 00005647.
Where else can you see a President’s signature (Abraham Lincoln), a Queen’s signature (Victoria R), rare books and etchings, and a seventy-year-old gardenia in one place – but in the USA Gallery of the museum!
These are just a few of the objects from the multi-million dollar collection of paintings, models and artefacts we’ve compiled from the museum’s American collection to represent more than 200 years of the close maritime connection between the seafaring nations of the USA and Australia.
During the coming months the permanent exhibition Commerce – The working sea is being removed from display and a new temporary exhibition space developed. The Commerce gallery is the only long term display that has not significantly changed since it was installed at the opening of the museum in 1991. While it’s exciting to see such movement and change in the museum in this first stage of a long term plan to revitalise our galleries, it was with a little sadness that I watched the first objects being removed from display!
Some of the popular objects in the exhibition were the replica wharf with a 1910 Johnson & Co wharf crane and a Norwegian built whale cannon from the 1940s which loomed ominously over the whaling section at the end of the gallery.
Dismantling the large, heavy wharf crane involved quite a bit of work
My favourite object, and one of the most signficant artefacts in the museum, is the panel from the Sydney Wharfies Mural. The iconic mural – which tells the story of the politics and struggles of 20th century waterside workers in the context of Australian and international history – will remain on display elsewhere in the museum.
A harpooner with his whale cannon overlooks the dismantling of the Commerce exhibition
You will still be able to access the objects and stories from the Commerce exhibition through the museum’s continually expanding online eMuseum database. As curator of Environment, Industry and Shipping, I will continue to research and document these important areas of maritime history – particularly the transformation of the working harbour and maritime environmental history. Other areas of focus include the history of merchant shipping and the lives and stories of merchant seafarers, Australia’s regional maritime connections and the fascinating history of the Australian pearling industry.
With many changes taking place at the moment it’s quite an exciting time to be working at the museum …!