One of the UK’s most prestigious galleries considered holding an exhibition in 2018 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Led Zeppelin with employees predicting that more than 100,000 people would visit it, LedZepNews can reveal.
LedZepNews obtained 119 pages of previously unseen documents through a Freedom of Information request that we made of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The documents reveal that in 2017 the gallery considered holding a major Led Zeppelin exhibition in October 2018 but ultimately abandoned the idea, instead hosting the launch of the book “Led Zeppelin By Led Zeppelin” on September 24, 2018.
Revealed: The gallery’s internal memo
As part of the documents released through our Freedom of Information request, LedZepNews obtained a seven-page internal memo titled “Led Zeppelin at Fifty” produced by the National Portrait Gallery in 2017 which lays out the case for holding an exhibition the following year of photographs, original artworks and objects to tell the story of Led Zeppelin.
Paying subscribers to the LedZepNews Substack can download and read the seven-page memo we obtained from the gallery here.
“It is surprising that no one else is thinking about marking their half century in any way. They are a much bigger draw than either the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd – both of whom have had exhibitions in the last two years,” the memo reads.
Enthusiasm within the gallery was high. “The more involvement from the band the bigger the project becomes – fi [sic] they endorse what we do we can expect a minimum of 100,000 visitors. If we were to publish a catalogue it has the potential to be huge – a special edition with signatures would dwarf everything else we have ever done,” the memo reads.
The gallery hoped to benefit from speculation about a potential Led Zeppelin reunion. The document directed gallery employees to reading material on Led Zeppelin reunion rumours including the LedZepNews Twitter account as well as two articles that we published on this website in 2017 such as this analysis of the false rumour that the band would reunite for the 2017 Desert Trip festival.
What the exhibition would have looked like
The document explains that the gallery hoped to display original artworks and objects to tell the story of Led Zeppelin. The gallery started by taking stock of its collection to see which Led Zeppelin-related items it held.
“Surprisingly, we do not possess a single image of the band,” the gallery wrote in the memo. “The display would simply be a history of the band in photographs. If small we could restrict it to just 1968-1980. If we have more space it could be 1964-now. Timeline, discography, some objects etc. The bands album covers are some of the most iconic and recognisable in rock history – absolutely unmistakable to their millions of fans.”
The gallery considered selling prints of Led Zeppelin-related images as a way to recoup some of the costs that it would spend on the exhibition. “This display could be as big as we choose to make it – a dozen or so images would hardly do it justice,” the memo reads.
“We need further talks with [Dave Brolan] as along with all the photographs he also has access to objects (such as the original artwork for the band’s own record label- Swan Song, and the black object from the cover of ‘Presence’). I am discussing costs at the moment and whether we could sell versions of all the images – they are all taken by commercial photographers – and fi [sic] we did so whether we could off-set the costs in some wav [sic],” it continued.
The National Portrait Gallery confirmed in a statement to LedZepNews that it considered holding a Led Zeppelin exhibition but declined to explain why the project didn’t proceed.
“The Gallery’s programme of exhibitions and displays are considered years in advance and as part of this process, we consider many different artists, ideas and proposals,” a spokesperson for the gallery said in a statement.
The exhibition never happened – but a book launch did go ahead
Despite the memo’s enthusiasm for a landmark Led Zeppelin exhibition, no such event was held at the National Portrait Gallery or at any other venue. The gallery was hired out to host the launch of the band’s book “Led Zeppelin By Led Zeppelin” on September 24, 2018, however.
That event saw some temporary displays of Led Zeppelin imagery as well as a Led Zeppelin-branded carpet. Jimmy Page attended and gave an interview to the BBC.
Other attendees included Page’s girlfriend Scarlett Sabet, Page’s children, Led Zeppelin’s former tour manager Richard Cole, photographer Jørgen Angel, journalist Phil Alexander and television presenter Johnny Vaughan.
The documents obtained by LedZepNews show that the gallery was sensitive that the book launch wasn’t perceived as an exhibition it was hosting.
“Please note this is a private gallery hire for a book launch. We need to avoid creating an impression or expectation that the gallery is hosting a display or exhibition,” one gallery employee emailed to another on September 21, 2018 in the lead up to the book launch.
That evening, a gallery employee sent a separate email to Reel Art Press, the publishers of the book. “We would like to focus the comms on the book launch, and avoid creating the impression that the Gallery is hosting a display of the prints as this may lead to unmanageable expectations,” the email read.
“We entered into an agreement with you on the basis that the private event was a book launch. We feel that too much publicity around the prints may create the impression that we are hosting an official display at the Gallery, and we wish to avoid any confusion in the minds of visitors.”
A Led Zeppelin exhibition was also considered by the band
It’s unclear whether the abandoned Led Zeppelin exhibition project by the National Portrait Gallery was linked in any way to Led Zeppelin’s own plan to hold an exhibition about the band.
LedZepNews revealed in 2021 that the band had planned to hold a Led Zeppelin exhibition, even going as far as setting up a company in 2018 as a vehicle for the project.
The business was given the name “Company 2018”. It was created for the purpose of “activities of exhibition and fair organisers,” according to its Companies House code.
That business was set up months after Led Zeppelin hired trademark lawyers in the UK and US to trademark “The Led Zeppelin Experience” around the world. Those trademark filings came after Jason Bonham said in 2018 that Led Zeppelin asked him to change the name of his band from “Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience”.
LedZepNews also revealed in 2017 that Led Zeppelin’s record label Warner Music Group was planning “a series of high-profile events” the following year to mark the band’s fiftieth anniversary, according to an executive at business.
It’s possible that “The Led Zeppelin Experience” would also have involved some type of Led Zeppelin hologram. Page said in 2022 that the band considered a hologram but ultimately couldn’t agree on it. He also said, when asked about the band’s exhibition plans: “There was something at one point. But all the members and people around the band couldn’t agree. I was much happier doing my book and the exhibition with the Met.”