The Abba Museum: My Day As the Dancing Queen

Chloë Bryan-Brown

A ferry is taking me to Djurgården, one of the islands that make up Stockholm. Behind me, the Old Town glitters in the morning sun and ahead of me a roller coaster seems to rise from the water like a sea monster: Djurgården is a leisure resort popular with locals, and the wind carries the shrieks from the fairground. But I’ve come to see a museum dedicated entirely to a pop group who haven’t played in 30 years. My friends are green with envy. Even my children begged to come.

Digging the Dancing Queen

The ABBA Museum has been open for just three months when I visit, but has already had 100,000 visitors—and an astonishing 80 per cent are from outside of Sweden. Although I see no posters for the museum on my way there, I enter to find it heaving with visitors.

When your allotted time slot comes around, you pass a replica of the famous ABBA sign made up of light bulbs, and then enter a cinema. Here, dazzling footage of the band performing fills the wall and the blasting music engulfs you.

suddenly it’s 1974 

...in a shabby semi-detached house in Selsey Bill, a small town on the south coast of Britain. I'm nearly seven and can’t sleep because of the pulse of pop music, and applause rising through the ceiling. Crouching at the top of the stairs, I can just see the small black-and-white television in the sitting room below and my five older siblings squeezed round it. Like everyone else in Europe, they're glued to the Eurovision Song Contest, this year coming from Brighton, just 40 miles away.

Expectations are sky high for the British entry Olivia Newton-John, singing “Long Live Love”. But it’s the Swedish group ABBA, striding out on stage in sliver platform boots, silky knickerbockers, swirling skirts and tops decorated with gleaming chains, who steal the show with their song “Waterloo”.

 

So began my romance with ABBA—they were there when I was growing up in the 1970s, there when I left home for university in the 1980s and into the 1990s when I moved to London and “Dancing Queen” was in every pub and club.

 

Back to the present 

I step into the next room, taking us back to the days before ABBA, when each member of the band had success in their own right. There are black-and-white childhood photos and newspaper clippings, videos of Frida in dance bands, and a young Agnetha singing in a park with two clean-cut men. You see Björn, the poor boy from nowhere, in folk group the Hootenanny Singers. Benny was cooler and played in a band modelled on the Beatles called the Hep Stars. 

Every visitor gets an audio guide to hold to their ear. At each exhibit you scan your handset and the relevant audio plays, so you view the museum at the pace you choose. Now I’m hearing how it was chance, friendship, romance, then marriage that brought the band together—Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid are discussing their memories. Remembering the bitter lyrics to “The Winner Takes It All”, I’m amazed to hear them talking so fondly of how they met and fell in love—Agnetha saying how much she fancied Björn and the wonderful wedding they had. I discover that piano maestro Benny can’t read music and Anni-Frid, who was taught to sew by the grandmother who raised her, often helped with the costumes.

Opening night at the abba museum

The Grand Opening

The rooms in the museum are sequenced to follow the band’s career. There are also chances to step into their world, even to become a fifth member. One room is like a live performance­—when it’s your turn, choose a song then step onto a stage. The band appears as holograms and you're dancing and singing with them. No one seems to suffer stage fright, and your “audience” of other visitors clap and cheer. Another room films you in real time and projects you into a pop video. There are booths where similar technology allows you to “try on” ABBA costumes: you choose an outfit and your face is projected onto an image of it on the wall that you can move around in. There’s an interactive quiz so you can test your knowledge of the band—I did miserably.

We wanted to tell the true story, which is worth telling, I think, of how four people got together almost by chance and grew organically into ABBA. The museum brings people closer to that story

At the centre of the museum

A series of installations that reconstruct the real places in the ABBA story. There’s the recording studio where the famous ABBA wall of sound was created, featuring the actual mixing desk used. There’s the summer house on the island of Viggsö where Benny and Björn wrote many of the songs. There’s Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s dressing-room, complete with the shimmery make-up and Champagne flutes for the one glass they each allowed themselves before going on stage. There are mock-ups of the offices of record label Polar Music and the workshop where the band’s costumes were created. But the one that moves me most is home-loving Agnetha’s kitchen.

Here, among the stripped-pine fittings and gingham curtains, she cooked cabbage pudding with lingonberry jam. Björn’s memories on the audio guide give it particular poignancy as he describes the moment, after he and Agnetha split, when he watched out of the kitchen window as their daughter walked down the path to school, and realised she was growing up and slipping away from them.

 

In the studio is a recording booth where you can add the vocals to a song, or have a go at remixing an ABBA track. In one corner, on a pedestal against a wall of kitsch brown and orange wallpaper, is a 1970s-style phone. Only the band members know the number for it and any one of them could “Ring Ring” at any time.

“Have they ever?” I ask a guide.

“Just the once,” he says. “It was Anni-Frid and the guy who picked it up—a Venezuelan fittingly named Fernando—couldn’t believe it.”

Such daring attempts to bring the real band into the experience can be over-reaching: in the studio is a piano that was meant to be linked to Benny’s piano at home—when he plays, the notes are reproduced at the museum. Sadly it isn’t working and the guide says it’s unlikely ever to.

All the exhibits are so personal and affecting that I’m not surprised to discover the museum curator is Ingmarie Halling, ABBA’s former wardrobe lady. Only someone who knew the band well could do such a good job of conveying what it was really like to be a part of it.

The museum’s mission statement is simple and joyous—that you’ll walk in and dance out

Dancing Queen Abba Museum

 

"Ring Ring"

Later, back in London, I have my own “Ring Ring” moment when Björn hears I’m writing about the museum and arranges to phone. Ten minutes before he's due to call, my husband, children and I gather round the phone, squabbling over who will answer.

As the museum’s main financial backer, he’s delighted with the public’s positive response. “We wanted to tell the true story, which is worth telling, I think, of how four people got together almost by chance and grew organically into ABBA. The museum brings people closer to that story,” he says.

He also hopes it brings fans closer to the extraordinary people who worked behind the scenes. “We wanted to show that there were so many gifted people behind us,” explains Björn. “At every turn someone so talented—the sound, the management, the videos.”

Ah, those videos, beaming ABBA into homes around the world, getting me and my friends dancing and pouting around the room. “We pioneered them,” says Björn, “and they helped us achieve fame in Australia and other places. We didn’t want to tour—we’d all done that in our previous careers and now had children. We also wanted to spend more time in the studio because perfecting our sound was our obsession.”

Among the memorabilia are fan letters—from Poland, Nigeria, France, Yugoslavia, Germany, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Brazil, Ireland, Greenland, Iran and Israel—that show just how effective the band were at reaching right round the globe. 

The museum’s mission statement is simple and joyous—that you’ll “walk in and dance out”. So where better to end my visit than at a disco? 

There’s a recreation of the kind of 1970s nightclub I used to love, with flashing lights, a glitter ball and light-up squares on the floor. I’m glad my children weren’t there to be embarrassed, because I danced—I, and all the other 40-somethings blissfully transported back to our youth. 

We have plenty of ABBA DVDs and CDS in our shop. Visit now!

Dancing Queen at Abba Museum

Experience it for yourself!