"It was a pivotal performance that changed pop history and turned David Bowie into a star," said the V&A's Victoria Broackes. "We could do an exhibition just on the number of people who saw that performance and said it changed their lives."
The V&A is going for the bigger picture though and has announced details of the first museum retrospective for a man who is one of the most influential performers of modern times.
The museum has been allowed into Bowie's vast private archive in New York and given unprecedented access to some 60,000 items – costumes, photographs, designs, instruments, films – from which it has chosen around 300 for the show next spring.
The tiny Starman costume, used for the performance on 6 July 1972 of the first single from his Ziggy Stardust album – "I think he was living on a diet of cocaine, milk and red peppers," said Broackes, the show's co-curator – will be a highlight, as it should be.
For the time it was an extraordinary performance, not least the way Bowie – who had told Melody Maker he was bisexual – effortlessly draped his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson.
"It was the manner of presentation, the way he pointed down the camera and was saying to people 'I look different, you can be different, you can be whoever you want to be,'" said Broackes. "Yes people were wearing pretty wacky things but Bowie was getting through to people in a different sort of way and allowing them to be individuals."
The novelist Jake Arnott has written of his 11-year-old self playing at being Bowie and Ronson in his garden with his friend Pete. Ian McCulloch, of Echo and the Bunnymen, remembered it this way: "All my other mates at school would say 'Did you see that bloke on Top Of The Pops?' He's a right faggot, him!' And I remember thinking 'You pillocks' … It made me feel cooler."
The V&A show will be an exploration and celebration of Bowie's creative spirit and it will make big claims. "Bowie has played a crucial role in shaping modern society due to his focus on personal self-expression that we in the west, at least, now take as a right," said the exhibition's other curator Geoffrey Marsh.
"Bowie may not have set out to do this … but help change the world he did and the ripples of those changes continue to move outwards around the globe today."
The V&A stressed it was the museum's show. The famously controlling Bowie has no say in it. A recent story in the Observer suggested he would part curate the exhibition prompting a rare response on his Facebook page.
Bowie, who lives almost reclusively in Manhattan with his wife Iman and daughter Lexi, 12, wrote: "I am not a co-curator and did not participate in any decisions relating to the exhibition." He added: "A close friend of mine tells me that I'm neither 'devastated', 'heartbroken' nor 'uncontrollably furious' by this news item."
No one from the V&A has sat down face to face with Bowie and, given he does not fly, it would be a surprise to everyone if he even made it along.
"I'm sorry to say I've never met him," said Broackes. "Of course I'd love to and I really hope he likes it but in a way, because the V&A always takes editorial control of what it produces, it is better that we haven't met him."
Marsh said there were piles of books on Bowie – "I'm sure there will be many more university doctorates" – but this is the first significant exhibition and he promised it would be "groundbreaking" and hopefully achieve the almost impossible task of appealing to both diehard fans and an audience too young to really know how much of an influence Bowie was and still is.
That present tense is important and the V&A has called its show – which has taken two and a half years to plan – '"David Bowie is.
"It underpins a key tenet of the exhibition," said Broackes. "David Bowie's impact today."
It will examine what has influenced him – German expressionism, music hall, Theatre of Cruelty, French chanson, surrealism, Brechtian theatre, avant-garde mime, musicals and Japanese kabuki to name a few – and the countless artists he in turn has influenced.
The show will include costumes such as the Union Jack coat designed by Bowie and Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover and the outrageous striped bodysuit Kansai Yamamoto designed for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour; classic photographs by Brian Duffy and Terry O'Neill; and excerpts from videos and films including The Man Who Fell to Earth and Labyrinth.
The V&A has held exhibitions about The Supremes, Kylie Minogue and Annie Lennox. There may be some who sniff at the V&A staging a show on Bowie, but it points out it is the museum for performance and theatre. Broackes added: "I don't feel there is an argument unless you think museums should be filled with things from the past. This museum has never been like that or about that."
Tickets are now on sale for David Bowie is at the V&A from 23 March-28 July 2013