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Creating the Scene

Once we had decided to use the containers, we began planning how they would be arranged in the setting. Because part of our story would address the shift of container operations from San Francisco to Oakland during the 1960s, it made sense to locate the setting at Matson’s new container facility at the Port of Oakland, which opened in 1968.

Oakland container terminal at night
Matson’s container yard at the Port of Oakland, about 1970. This image of the yard at night helped inspire and inform the setting in the exhibition.
Oakland aerial view
This aerial view of the Matson terminal in Oakland, about 1973, shows the relationship between the cranes, the storage yard, and intermodal links (the railroad runs along the left side of the facility).

The Lone Longshoreman

The cast figure in the nighttime setting shows a longshoreman walking across the container yard toward the crane in the distance. A ship is being unloaded at the pier. The longshoreman is a middle-aged, African American man who is dressed in coveralls, work boots, and a hardhat, typical working clothes for a crane operator. His gloves are in his back pocket—they’re not the thick gloves worn by longshoremen for handling barrels, boxes, and bales, or for lashing containers together. They’re thin and leather, and may not be needed at all for driving the crane. The operator is carrying a thermos of coffee.

Retired ILWU Local 10 longshoreman Herb Mills helped us develop the details of this cast figure. He suggested we show the crane operator, who represents the new world of longshore work that was ushered in by containerization. The crane operator works alone in the cab, high above the ship, in surroundings that contrast sharply with the gangs of men who labored together in the holds of break-bulk freighters. This longshoreman is “turning to,” or about to start the night shift at the crane controls. That he is African American reflects Local 10’s membership beginning in the 1960s, when a significant number of blacks were brought into the local.

Longshoreman cast figure in exhibition setting
Longshoreman cast figure in exhibition setting
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