Tamara Hinson, The Daily Telegraph, May 6, 2013
When Björn Ulvaeus first heard about the plans to open an Abba museum in Stockholm, it was the proposed location which persuaded him to get involved. “They told me that everyone wanted the museum and that it should be in Stockholm,” the co-founder of the museum told me. “That’s when it dawned on me – it’s going to be in a very prominent place which I will pass 15 or 20 times a year. I’ll pass it with my children, my grandchildren and guests who come to stay with me will want to come and see it. So it had to be great – I couldn’t escape it. That’s why I got involved!”
Abba: the Museum, which opens on Tuesday, is located on the island of Djurgården. Fittingly, it will be an all-singing, all-dancing tribute to Sweden’s most famous musical export.
The museum is located in a building known as the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, a hotel and a restaurant, but the Abba museum will undoubtedly be the star of the show. Exhibits include a replica of the cottage on the island of Viggso where the group wrote many of their songs and a mock-up of the changing rooms at Edmonton Ice Hockey Arena, where they performed during their final world tour. There will also be a dressing room area where visitors will be able to try on some of Abba’s most famous (and famously tight-fitting) costumes, and fans who’ve dreamt of joining the band will be able to appear (albeit virtually) on stage alongside them.
Ulvaeus revealed that he had been keen to provide visitors with an insight into the story of the band. “I’m very story-orientated, after the musicals and lyric writing and everything else,” he said. “And I thought it was a great story – four people accidentally meeting, falling in love and forming a group. That’s a great story to tell in a museum.”
Key to the storytelling process is an audio guide produced by Catherine Johnson, who wrote the screenplay for the film Mamma Mia! “Catherine and I came up with the idea that the four members of Abba could tell the story themselves through an audio guide, and she interviewed each of us separately,” Ulvaeus said. Those interviews were clearly a trip down memory lane. “It was wonderful when I recorded the bit about when Agnetha [his former wife] and I first met,” he said. “We recorded that bit together, bouncing lines off each other about what it was like.”
Both Ulvaeus and the museum’s curator, Ingmarie Halling, were keen to get the audio guide right. Halling later told me that before the recent opening of the Bowie exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert museum, the British singer had given an interview to the Swedish press. Bowie was proud of the audio guide produced for his exhibition and believed that Halling could learn a thing or two from it. The exhibition certainly made an impression on Halling, although not the one Bowie had hoped for. “I visited, but it wasn’t exciting,” she said. “It was just things in boxes and everyone was walking in a line. And I tried the audio system and if you walk back, and don’t go the way you’re supposed to, it doesn’t work. I had to take the audio guide off in the end.”
The Abba museum has got plenty of bells and whistles. There is a stage on which visitors will be able to appear alongside holograms of the band, and entrance tickets which can be scanned and used to access footage created during the visit. But it is a museum which doesn’t take itself too seriously. “It’s very hi-tech but combined with warmth and humour,” explained Ulvaeus.
One example of this is the Seventies telephone which forms part of an exhibit dedicated to the album Ring Ring. Only the four members of Abba – Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid – have the number, so when the phone rings, visitors will know that it is one of the band on the other end. Does he plan on calling? “Absolutely. I could use it for research – to ask people what they think.” Equally impressive is the piano connected to Benny’s studio. Every so often a red light will flick on, and those present will be treated to a live version of Benny playing from afar.
Although he grew up on Sweden’s east coast, Ulvaeus lives in Stockholm, and regards the city as his home. His perfect day involves a stroll around the city and a plate of sashimi. “People don’t bother me at all, so I can walk around without a problem.
“If you were to ask me what I couldn’t do without it would be sashimi. I usually get takeaway but there’s also a restaurant I go to called Seikoen.”
His advice for visitors? “Walk around a lot. They should see the Vasa Museum. It’s absolutely magnificent – a great big ship inside a museum. I love churches and there are a couple in the old city (such as the Storkyrkan) I’d go to. If it’s summer, I’d suggest taking one of the boats, which go around the archipelago. It’s so beautiful, and there’s nothing on earth like it. Wild horses couldn’t drag me away from a summer on the Stockholm archipelago.”
His love of Sweden’s capital is palpable. “Stockholm is unique in that it’s built on islands and surrounded by water, so you get this enormous sense of freedom. It’s got everything you could possibly need – everything New York or London has but without all the people and traffic. It’s also become a very creative city, not only for music but also for fashion and computer games.”
That said, he hopes that the city doesn’t grow too much bigger – even though, ironically, the new museum will draw more visitors. “It’s growing,” he notes. “It used to be much more provincial, but now it feels more like a capital and it’s become more cosmopolitan. I for one wouldn’t want it to grow much bigger.”
When outside the city, Ulvaeus finds himself drawn to the coast, and especially his home town of Västervik. “Bohuslän on the west coast, which is also on an archipelago, is beautiful, and I also love to go to my hometown. It’s just a small town with a population of 20,000.”
Although Abba spent a surprisingly short amount of time touring, promotional work took them all over the world. “England was always very special,” recalled Ulvaeus. “It was so important, because the reason Benny and I started writing was the Beatles. During the Sixties, England was everything. To be number one in England was more important than being number one in America, because England set the tone.”
Ulvaeus remembers a trip to Germany for different reasons. “We did some television work in East Berlin,” he said. “People there loved us but it was so depressing. I remember we were paid in whatever currency they had – East German marks or whatever – which you couldn’t change when you got to the West. Nobody would take it. I had one day to get rid of it – I bought everyone in the bar a drink!”
These days, holidays are about spending time with his loved ones. “I like to bring the whole family. Usually it’s a big house with room for all 15 of us, with a large pool at the centre, and grandpa sitting back, watching his grandchildren and playing with them.” He is also something of a sun worshipper. “I only book holidays in the winter season and then I want sun more than anything else. Why? Try a cold, windy and damp November day in Stockholm and you’ll know why,” he said.
That afternoon, I stopped by Seikoen. As I sipped my miso soup on a cold, bright Stockholm day, looking out toward Gamla Stan and the clusters of church spires, I understood why he sometimes craved warmer weather, but I also realised why wild horses could never drag him away.