2018 Sydney Design Awards

spaces, objects, visual, graphic, digital & experience design, design champion, best studio & best start-up, plus over 40 specialist categories

accelerate transformation, celebrate courage, growing demand for design

Container - The box that changed the world

Image Credit : Photo 1: ANMM/Emma Bjorndah; Photos 2, 4 and 5: Photo ANMM/Andrew Frolows; Photos 3, and 6-9: ANMM/Stewart Silcox





Project Overview

“Container” is a free, outdoor, temporary and travelling exhibition, exploring the fascinating history and contemporary impact of the humble shipping container. Housed within specially modified shipping containers, the exhibition incorporates a bold colour scheme, striking imagery, large-scale graphics, and hands-on interactives to deliver the museum’s first exhibition in the public domain.


Australian National Maritime Museum


“Container” was conceived and commissioned internally at the Australian National Maritime Museum. The small internal team was supplemented by external design consultants and fabricators.

Australian National Maritime Museum

Concept, Curator and Project Manager: Mary-Elizabeth Andrews
Production and Lighting Manager: Stephen Hain
Senior Education Officer: Jeff Fletcher
Creative Producer Interactives: Em Blamey
Family Program Coordinator: Annalice Creighton

Design Consultants and Fabricators

Exhibition design: Thylacine Design and Management Design (Senior Interpretive Designer Lucy Banyan, Graphic Designers Mark Owens and Minnie Doran, and Design Manager Tim Moore)
Container engineering and modifications: Royal Wolf
Mechanical Interactives: Blueprint 4D
Prop design and construction: We Can Build You

Project Brief

The brief was to create a bold new exhibition that would both invigorate the museum’s under-utilised outdoor spaces and deliver a range of engaging historical and contemporary content, providing visitors with a better understanding of the role of shipping in their everyday lives. Additional objectives included broadening our audience demographic, reaching non-visitors, and experimenting with the exhibition format to create new and surprising experiences and connections for out visitors.

The exhibition team addressed the brief by creating a series of inviting new spaces in customised shipping containers placed strategically across the museum’s outdoor footprint. Given the exhibition content, the aim was to retain the essential qualities of the containers – they should still look like containers – but it was also important to make sure they would catch the attention of passers-by and encourage people to enter and explore the stories within.

This was achieved through an eye-catching colour scheme, big, bold exterior graphic treatments, the considered use of container interventions, careful selection and pacing of images and content, and the inclusion of playful and surprising elements to illustrate the stories, such as oversized fire ants climbing the walls to demonstrate the importance of biosecurity and a classic 1950s fridge full of food props to show the impact of refrigerated transport on the food we eat. The container design and content placement also took into account the needs of people with disability, providing fully accessible spaces with text and interactives placed for ease of access.

Project Innovation/Need

“Container” is the museum’s first outdoor exhibition. It represents a shift in thinking about how we present museum content to better engage new and non-museum visitors. By stepping outside of the traditional gallery space, the exhibition invites those who don’t usually visit museums and galleries to explore issues important to the museum and society as a whole.

The exhibition’s innovative “containerised” approach draws upon new trends in pop-up design and contemporary art installations. In doing so, it forges a very real link between form and content by quite literally taking our visitors “inside the box” to explore the technical, economic, environmental, social and cultural impact of a revolutionary innovation inspired by the sea.

Developed by the Australian National Maritime Museum, “Container” links historical themes with local, national, and international stories of contemporary significance, illustrating how global shifts in manufacturing and consumption developed, and how they impact the way we live our lives today.

Each of the brightly coloured containers explores a different aspect of the container revolution, from the development of standardised containers and “box ships” during the 1950s and 1960s through to the lives and work of seafarers today, global shipping networks, port development and operations, trade, customs and quarantine, ocean pollution and sustainability, and art, architecture and alternative container uses. In addition, a giant container-sized “showcase” installation takes visitors beyond the “made in” label to trace the transport histories of every object within an average lounge-dining room.

Design Challenge

Working with containers presented unique challenges for the museum, whose exhibitions are usually held within dedicated, controlled gallery spaces. Design challenges included making the containers wheelchair accessible whilst minimising operational requirements. To address this, the team partnered with Royal Wolf to design and engineer bespoke ramp solutions which allow the doors to be opened and closed with the ramps in place.

Other design challenges included the incorporation of a safe and reliable off-grid power supply with minimal impact on interior display surfaces; orienting the containers on a constrained site whilst supporting narrative and visitor flow; designing props and interactives to be durable for heavy use in an outdoor, marine environment; and the inclusion of container modifications to add interest, without losing the sense of the structures as containers.

The unique form also informed curatorial decisions, forcing new ways of thinking about content. In the absence of museum-standard climate controls, the exhibition could not accommodate original historical material. Audio-visual and digital interactives were also not desirable, given the outdoor setting. Playful props, custom-made installations and hands-on mechanical interactives paired with dynamic graphics and the strategic use of light-boxes were employed to elevate the visitor experience in the absence of collection objects.


One of the overarching aims of the “Container” exhibition is to promote awareness of sustainability. The exhibition explores the complex systems of globalisation and the role and impact of containers across a range of fields including environmental and economic sustainability. It does so in a way that links quite complex ideas to the local and the familiar in order to prompt personal recognition and action.

Sustainability is addressed in the exhibition in relation to the distances travelled by everyday items, “upcycling” in container architecture, the environmental, economic and human impact of global production and manufacturing chains, a large-scale “fast fashion” installation (for which staff and volunteers donated clothing), ship design and economies of scale, and ocean health implications of mass shipping today.

It was important for the exhibition team to “live” this as far as possible in the exhibition design. There are a number of ways in which the design seeks to minimise the exhibition’s environmental impact. The most visible is the use of off-grid solar to power the containers. This, coupled with the minimisation of power usage within the exhibition design, means that the project will require no ongoing power usage over its two-to-five-year lifespan. The exhibition’s longevity also reduces the impact of materials usage in comparison with traditional short-term temporary exhibitions. The containers, solar units, showcases, lights and light boxes will be re-purposed following the touring program.

This award celebrates innovative and creative design for a temporary building or interior, exhibition, pop up site, installation, fixture or interactive element. Consideration given to materials, finishes, signage and experience.
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