The shipping container: a Pandora’s Box?

Posted by jcm22 at Jul 18, 2014 11:50 AM |
A globalised storage and transit system or a space for our dreams? Professor Martin Parker of Leicester's School of Management looks at the prosaic in search of something more profound.

The shipping container is a box held together with welds and rivets, with a wooden floor and doors at one end. It is also a magic box, containing mystery and the wealth of the world, as it restlessly roams the globe. It is a significant object in its own right; more than just a thing containing ‘stuff’. A key element in global trade; a route for drugs, migrants and weapons; a structure for houses, hotels and pop-up shops; and a series of Lego bricks which decorate the edge lands of every city on the globe.

In 2009, the Polish artist Miroslaw Balka constructed a gigantic box for the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern Gallery in London and called it ‘How It Is’. It was a ramp leading up to a metal box containing blackness and 390m2 of nothing. Commentators suggested that it was a shipping container, a gas chamber, a cattle truck. It was a sensory deprivation tank producing claustrophobia, holding the unknown, making people disappear. It was Balka’s reference to concentration camps and the industrialisation of the world. It was art, because it was in The Tate, but it was just a metal box; a box that could swallow you, contain you and cover you in darkness.

A more chilling tale about containers can be read in Robert Saviano’s extraordinary book about the Camorra crime families of Naples. He begins with a section on the docks which provided transit to 150,000 shipping containers per year in the mid-2000s. Saviano describes how one container broke free of its crane, lurching wildly in the air as the doors flew open, tipping the frozen bodies of Chinese women, men and children down onto the concrete, where they broke on the ground. They were migrant workers who had died in Italy and wished to be buried back in China.

An account of rationalisation, standardisation and economics can never explain our fear of darkness, or just why someone would pay for their frozen body to be shipped back to China. Neither can it account for the complex ways in which one storage and transit system has created ports as well as filling supermarkets and art galleries.

In 1937, Malcom McLean was waiting for his truck to be unloaded at a New Jersey pier, when he realised it would be more efficient to load the entire body onto the ship. McLean went on to found a container line, and the dimensions of the box went on to reconfigure the world. Lorries, ships, ports, cranes, trains, products and people all become tessellated into a system which we now call globalisation.

At a first glance, the container appears to be nothing but a box that carries things from one place to another. But its sameness makes difference, its efficiency makes waste, its security manufactures danger, and its plenty produces emptiness. The container produces paradoxes and, like Pandora’s Box, is a symbol of the problems of the global economy.

Related Video

Article written by Professor Martin Parker - School of Management, University of Leicester

Archived website

The Social Worlds project ran from March 2014 to November 2015. This site is no longer being updated but provides an archive of all the articles which were created as part of the project.

Search Articles

Download publication (PDF)

Professor Martin Parker

Martin Parker

Research Interests:

  • To widen the scope of what can properly be covered by the business school
  • Alternative organization, angels, shipping containers and art galleries
  • How academics write, and how they might cultivate new audiences for their ideas

Contact Details:


Telephone: 0116 252 5317

Visit Martin's staff page