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Imagining the Setting

After several months of research and weighing of alternatives, we decided to locate the America on the Move containerization story in the West. With strong material from Matson Navigation, the ILWU, and the Port of Oakland, the time and place for the setting would be San Francisco and Oakland, 1960-1970.

The majority of settings in the exhibition are built around large vehicles from the Museum’s collection. With the container story, however, we knew we would have a problem with scale: even if we had one in the collection, a containership was simply not going to fit in the hall. Or in the Museum. So we focused on the next best thing—full-sized containers—believing they would help suggest the scale of the hardware involved in the container revolution. We set out to locate some containers of the right vintage and contacted the Matson Navigation Company for assistance. Eventually, three old Matson containers were found at the Port of Long Beach, where they were being used for storage. In March 2002, we visited the port to assess their suitability.

Matson container in Long Beach

The containers in Long Beach were from around 1970. Unlike most containers today, which are made of steel, these were aluminum. And, while most containers today are either 20 feet or 40 feet long, these were 24-footers, the size preferred by the Matson Company for its service to Hawaii.

Making the Old (Almost) New

While the containers were indeed from the right period, they were clearly in need of refurbishing. We wanted the containers to look as they would have in 1970—fairly new, but not straight out of the factory. We posed the question, “Can the old containers be made to look as though they had crossed the ocean a few times?”

The Matson Company agreed to repair and refurbish the containers to our specifications and had them transported to Modesto, California, where the work was done at American Metal Fabricators.

Preparing the container for exhibition
Workers at American Metal Fabricators in Modesto, California, work on one of the container sections needed for the exhibition setting.
Members of the container refurbishing crew
Members of the container refurbishing team in Modesto, California
Managing the container project

In February 2003, we traveled to Modesto to inspect the work. Ed Stephens (left), manager of Mechanical Engineering for Matson Navigation, oversaw the project and reviewed its progress with curator Paula Johnson.

Adding the 'Trailmobile' logo
George Oeser (on ladder) reattaches the “Trailmobile” logo to the back door of one of the refurbished container sections.
Putting the finishing touches on the container's exterior
Putting the finishing touches on the container's exterior
Lifting the container onto a flatbed truck
Lifting the container onto a flatbed truck
The container leaves Modesto.
The container leaves Modesto.
The container arrives in Washington.
The container arrives in Washington.
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