"We’ve been able to welcome a more diverse range of audience of all ages to learn more about just why ABBA have had such a connection to British audiences for over 40 years."
Paul Denton, curator of the ABBA exhibition at the Southbank Centre
ABBA and Paul Denton – Thank you for the music
Southbank Centre, London, is inviting visitors to come on a musical journey with pop sensation ABBA. Follow a tour with an expert guide, led by the voice of narrator Jarvis Cocker through nine immersive rooms. British Council, Sweden spoke to curator Paul Denton about why the Swedish band’s music and lyrics are as relevant today as they were in the 1970s when they hit the charts.
When we last met in Stockholm you were there scoping out the ABBA exhibition. Are you pleased with how it’s all come together in the UK?
It’s been great fun from beginning to end. We have really enjoyed developing the exhibition with the team at ABBA The Museum in Stockholm and are absolutely delighted with the reaction from our London audience , and the positive coverage in the press. Creating an immersive ABBA exhibition using original archive and music was always going to be a challenge, but by creating something in this unique way means audiences have a direct visceral and emotional connection with the work and the bands story. This new way of presenting work is exactly what people seem to want. It means we’ve been able to welcome a more diverse range of audience of all ages to learn more about just why ABBA have had such a connection to British audiences for over 40 years.
One of the draws of the exhibition are the ‘hosts’ who take small groups through the rooms and show them around. Are these people now Britain’s biggest ever ABBA fans?
That’s what we like to hear! The guides are an essential part of the experience. Some of them are big ABBA fans, of course, and come with their own awareness and passion about the Swedish band, but many more are part of the existing Southbank Visitor Services host team. They might have possessed a general knowledge at first, but following in-depth training can now call themselves experts! A fairly detailed pack of reading material was given to each guide, with specific information about the economic, political and cultural status of Britain during the 1970s, the reasoning behind the design of each immersive room and why each individual object was chosen for display. They were also given a short introduction by the Creative Director of ABBA The Museum, Ingmarie Halling and supported on how best to move around the exhibition spaces by our Performance Director so as to give visitors the best experience and keep to the designated tour timings.
While Southbank were a major partner for the exhibition, you also worked with ABBA The Museum, Entertainment Exhibitions International AB (EEI), and even the ABBA group themselves.. Was it difficult to coordinate partners in Sweden and the UK?
Because each had their own designated part to play in the realisation of the exhibition, the partnership worked well. Southbank Centre created the initial exhibition narrative and design of the experience, which was approved by the band. We then worked with EEI and ABBA The Museum to select material and content. We were clear that we wanted the UK based audience to have a very different experience from what is available at ABBA The Museum in Stockholm. After all, what ABBA has meant to Britain is different to what ABBA has meant to Sweden. The driving question for Southbank was: how did the difficult economic and socio-political context in 1970s Britain create and fuel an growing interest in ABBA’s music? What was it about that particular time that meant Brits took ABBA into their hearts? Without going to too much detail, my research found that there were some interesting parallels between what Britain ‘74 was then and what it is today.
How did you choose what to exhibit?
The collection at ABBA The Museum is extensive. But because we had a guiding theme that connected the exhibition to the UK, we had some direction. Items that may have not been appropriate to audiences in Sweden have proved to be highly attractive for those in the UK. Each original object chosen has a story to tell and link to our design narrative. Ingmarie was vaguely amused at some of the artefacts that we selected for display, because she said that they would never have meant much if presented to a Swedish audience.
We wanted the exhibition to contain a personal touch that related to British audiences who remembered say ABBA’s first appearance on TV on the night of Eurovision, so we expanded our loan list to include items from British ABBA fan clubs and beyond, sourcingTV clips and ephemera from private collections. For instance, t-shirts, original Eurovision score sheets and photographs from April 1974 when they won the competition.
Do you find visitors get a bit emotional?
It’s extraordinary to see how much ABBA, a band that was only together for around 10 years but which had 9 number ones in the UK charts, still resonate with people, both young and old. By the time that visitors make it to the recreation of the Polar Music Room towards the middle of the exhibition, they can be very emotional. That shouldn’t be a surprise: the musicians were incredibly talented and tapped into a moment in history that resonates with many. The songs that they wrote are not only catchy, but the words have universal meaning. ABBA have since inspired many later musicians, not least Madonna (Hung Up)! And they’re not just for the older generation; we get children and teenagers coming along, singing the songs, and connecting with music. Grandparents and parents are passing the songs down through the family. I suppose you could say that Abba is the world’s unsurpassable, timeless, family phenomenom.
About Nordic Matters
Over the course of 2017, London’s Southbank Centre invited audiences to look more closely at what’s happening in Nordic art and culture. The programme for Nordic Matters embedded Nordic culture and artists in London and other parts of the UK and provided a platform to some of the ‘hidden voices’ from Åland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, as well as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Nordic Matters was the first time that Southbank Centre has programmed a year-long festival dedicated to one region of the world, with around a third of artists, authors and performers participating in events at Southbank Centre during 2017 will come from the Nordic region.
More about Nordic Matters
As part of the festival, particular emphasis will be placed on three main themes influenced by Nordic identity and society: play fostering curiosity and creativity, for people of all ages but especially children and young people; sustainability; and gender equality. Audiences will be able to experience and explore this cultural connection through an extensive programme of music, dance, theatre, literature, spoken word, design, visual art, talks & debates, fashion and food.
The programme is curated and presented by Southbank Centre, which has been supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Nordic embassies in London and the national arts agencies in Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland.
Following the official launch of Nordic Matters in January 2017, the British Council will be focusing on an evolving selection of artists participating in Nordic Matters through its dedicated websites and Facebook channels for Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.
Jude Kelly CBE, artistic director of the Southbank Centre , said: “It is a great honour for the UK and Southbank Centre to have been chosen to host Nordic Matters in 2017. The Nordic countries have long been at the forefront of social change, from championing young people’s rights to environmental concerns and gender equality, and their enlightened approach to culture and education chimes with Southbank Centre’s own belief in the power of the arts to transform lives. We are delighted that this year-long partnership will enable us to present a truly authentic cultural exchange showcasing the richness and diversity of the Nordic countries, including the lesser known Greenland, Åland and the Faroe Islands. In an ever-changing world, it is even more crucial that we celebrate the ways in which culture can bring us together, rather than driving us apart. Let the collaborations commence.”
The Nordic Council of Ministers said, “Nordic Council of Ministers is proud to collaborate with Southbank Centre on the Nordic Matters initiative. It is an excellent way to facilitate and showcase Nordic art and culture abroad - especially in the context of gender equality, sustainability, and children and youth. Cultural exchange between participating Nordic artists and British artists and audiences is a central and important feature of Nordic Matters. With a venture of this nature and size we can put our shared Nordic values and culture under the microscope and hope to be able to both inspire and be inspired beyond the borders of the Nordic Region. We might even learn something about ourselves and the links between the Nordic countries.”
SPOTLIGHT ON SWEDEN
Below you can discover a selection of acts from Sweden who will be featured as part of the Nordic Matters festival.