Planning a trip to London? Discover the wonders of the British Museum, nestled in the artistic Bloomsbury area, with this ultimate guide! It will help you gain insight into the museum’s must see masterpieces and plan your visit with ease.
Boasting over 8 million objects, antiquities, and artifacts, the British Museum’s collection is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Through its vast collection, the museum narrates the story of human history.
Many of the treasures on display hail from England’s time as a world superpower, when the Brits had an insatiable appetite for collecting the unusual and the extraordinary.
Overview And History Of the British Museum
The British Museum opened in 1759. Its founding collection came from collector Sir Hans Sloane, who bequeathed a collection of 71,000 pieces.
Other Victorians benefactors added to the collection. Many objects were gifted by kings and queens.
From the outset, the museum was free to all “studious and curious persons.”
Today the museum has four main wings. The domed reading room is in the center of the museum. You can only visit the room if you book an appointment to become a reader and obtain a free reader pass.
The reading room is enclosed by the Great Court, which was designed by architect Norman Foster. The court is one of the largest covered public squares in Europe.
The British Museum is split into sections corresponding to geographical areas and time periods. You’ll find separate wings for Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas, spread across three floors.
There’s an astounding amount to see and it can seem overwhelming. There are over 70 galleries and a huge range of objects.
You should decide in advance what historical periods or specific artifacts you want to see. For 2 pounds, you can buy a map that includes a “top 10 objects to see” in one hour guide.
There is no right or wrong way to visit. You can stay for an hour and enjoy the museum in a smaller dose.
Or, you can spend the entire day there. You can take the free tours or wander idly, with a break in the Great Court for lunch. That’s what I did and a break helped me see more things.
You can pick up an audio guide at the Audio Guide Desk in the Great Court.
Tickets & Tours
The British Museum is free to visit and it is exceedingly popular. To be sure you get in, you should reserve a timed entrance online.
There’s a separate line for those with reservations. But walk up entry is certainly possible, especially in non-summer months.
There are also a variety of free 30 to 40 minute eye-opener tours that take place throughout the day. The tours range in topic from Ancient Greece, South Asia, and the Art of the Middle East. They usually take place between 11:00 am and 4:00 pm.
There is also a 70 minute highlight tour you can take for £14.
Artifacts Or Plunder?
You may have read that the British Museum takes some heat about rightful ownership of certain objects in its collection, such as the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes.
Some consider the ancient treasures to be priceless plunder that was unlawfully snatched up during the era of British Colonialism.
The thorny issue of patrimony has roiled the western museum world as of late. Museum are increasingly being pressured to return objects to their country of origin.
But what art was illegally looted and what was legally imported or purchased?
Ownership of the Parthenon Marbles has long been a source of controversy. Greece has repeatedly asked for their return, but to no avail. In fact, the trustees of the British Museum have issued an official statement on the matter.
During the pandemic, the museum altered several exhibitions to clarify their links to slavery and colonialism.
Guide To The British Museum: What To See
You could spend weeks inspecting everything at the museum. But this guide may help you narrow down your options.
Here are my picks for the top 15 must see masterpieces at the British Museum. I also tell you what rooms to find them in.
1. Parthenon Marbles, Room 18
The Parthenon Marbles are probably the top thing to see at the British Museum.
These breathtaking friezes and sculptures once formed part of the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens, built between 447 and 438 B.C.
The Parthenon was intended to convey the power and dominance of Athens during its Golden Age. The sculptures were carved by Phidias, the most famous sculptor of antiquity, and give us insight into Athenian life.
The sculptures consist of:
- a frieze which shows a religious procession commemorating the birthday of Athena
- a series of metopes (sculpted relief panels) showing scenes from mythical battles
- figures of the gods and legendary heroes from the temple’s pediments
The British Museum houses 15 metopes, 17 pedimental figures, and 247 feet of the original frieze.
The sculptures were originally painted in brilliant colors with marble trim. Because they’re almost at eye level, you can see them much better than the ancient Greeks could.
Be sure to look for the riveting horse’s head from the east pediment. It has bulging eyes and veined cheeks, as if exhausted from drawing the chariot.
In the 1930s, there was a scandal over the marbles being over-zealously cleaned. It’s possible that original details such as chiseled grooves were stripped from the surface.
2. Busts Of Roman Emperors, Room 70
The Parthenon marbles aren’t the only Greek sculptures on display.
The museum has a stunning array of busts of the Roman emperors. It’s not half bad when compared against Rome’s Capitoline Museums.
Roman busts have always been a source of fascination for me. Portraiture was a form of propaganda in ancient Rome.
So one wonders, what do the emperors really look like? How do we know if the busts are properly identified? Are the busts realistic likenesses taken from life?
If, like me, you’re fascinated with the Roman emperors, you can go emperor spotting in Room 70.
There’s a veritable who’s who lineup at the British Museum. You can meet everyone from Augustus to Caracalla.
One of the most famous busts is the Meroe Head of Augustus in Room 70. Augustus commissioned thousands of statues conflating himself with Apollo, to solidify his right to power.
This one was excavated in 1910 in what is now modern Sudan. It has the classical features associated with Augustus. It was likely part of a larger than life size statue.
Some of the British Museum’s imperial busts have been proven to be fakes of recent vintage.
For example, a bust acquired in 1818 is one of the most reproduced images of Caesar. It was the accepted image of Caesar for nearly 100 years. But it’s now regarded as a pastiche and was taken out of the museum’s lineup of genuine ancient pieces.
3. Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Room 21
The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was a magnificent tomb built for King Maussollos and his wife. It’s now in ruins in Bodrum Turkey.
This tomb was so famous it gave rise to the modern word “mausoleum,” which is an above ground structure designed for burial or entombment.
The Mausoleum was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The building was up to 139 feet in height and was extravagantly decorated with sculpture, carved both in the round and in relief.
In Room 21, you can see some freestanding statues and marble relief slabs that came from the Mausoleum. There are also fragments of the four horse chariot that once crowned the roof.
4. Nereid Monument, Room 17
The Nereid Monument is the largest and finest of tombs from Xanthos Turkey.
It’s a lavish Greek-style temple that is reconstructed and displayed in the museum. It was built for Erbinna, a ruler of Xanthos.
In the 1840s, Charles Fellows obtained permission to excavate in Xanthos, where the monument lay in ruins. He brought some of the sculptures back to Britain.
The monument takes its name from the Nereids, mythical sea nymphs. The statues depicting the Nereids were originally placed between the columns of the tomb.
5. Ramesses Statue, Room 4
This statue of the Pharaoh Ramesses II is the largest sculpture in the British Museum. It’s the upper third of what was once a colossal seated statue. It was designed to show Ramesses as the supreme ruler, a mighty warrior, and a living god.
Ramesses II is known as one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs, the “ruler of rulers.” He erected more colossal statues than any other pharaoh.
His reign was successful. The annual Nile flood led to good harvests and prosperity in Egypt. In his 90+ years, Ramesses fathered 85 children with 7 queens during a 66 year reign.
This particular statue flanked the entrance of the Ramesseum, the pharaoh’s mortuary temple. It was carved from one block quarried at Aswan that likely weighed 20 tons.
Like all Egyptian statues, this one was originally painted. Some faint traces of red pigment remain.
6. Egyptian Mummies, Rooms 62 & 63
The British Museum’s Egyptian Collection follows the ancient culture from Neolithic times through the advent of Christianity.
Death and the afterlife played a significant role the life of ancient Egyptians.
The museum has a large collection of Egyptian mummies, coffins, and funerary masks.
To ensure a successful afterlife, Egyptians used a process of mummification. They removed internals organs and tightly wrapped the body in bandages.
One of the most striking displays is the inner coffin of Hornedjitef. The mummy of a priest was given a gilded mask and two human shaped wooden coffins. The inner coffin is delicately decorated.
7. Rosetta Stone, Room 4
No guide to the British Museum would leave out the famous Rosetta Stone. It’s one of the British Museum’s most treasured objects and one of the world’s most famous rocks.
It’s known around the world for being the key to deciphering the ancient Egyptian language. It changed historians’ understanding of the ancient world.
On 15 July 1799, a group of soldiers stumbled upon the stone while digging foundations for a fort in the town of Rosetta. It was immediately recognized as a valuable antiquity.
The stone is a broken part of a bigger stone slab. It has a message carved into it, written in three types of writing, including Ancient Greek.
It’s a decree passed by a council of priests, which affirms the royal cult of the 13 year old Ptolemy V.
The importance of this discovery to the study of Egyptology is immense. Before the stone’s discovery, no one knew how to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Because scholars could read the inscription in Ancient Greek, the Rosetta Stone became a valuable key to deciphering the other hieroglyphs.
8. Winged Bulls of Assyria, Room 6
This is one of a colossal pair of human headed lions that once flanked a doorway in the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II.
The room was located in ancient Assyria, which is now modern day Iraq.
The lions were mythological guardians who provided magical protection for the room and protected the occupants from demonic forces.
The five legs suggest that the lions were intended to be viewed from the front or the side and not from an angle.
9. Hoa Hakananai’a, Room 24
This monumental statue is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. It’s from the remote Easter Island off the coast of Chile.
The name Hoa Hakanani’a is from Rapa Nui language. It means “stolen or hidden friend.” Statues like this, called moai, faced inward away from the ocean.
The statue depicts a human torso and head with shrunken arms. Its back is decorated with carvings relating to the island’s Birdman cult.
The Hoa is approximately 1,000 years old. It was bartered for and taken by the crew of a British ship in 1868.
It’s difficult to imagine exactly how they moved the enormous basalt statue. It’s made out of volcanic rock and weighs four tons.
The statue has cavernous eyes and curving mouth. Its eyes were originally inlaid with coral. The figure itself was painted with red and white designs.
10. Lindow Man, Room 50
The Lindow man is a 2,000 year old mummy, thought to have lived between 2 BC and 119 AD. Discovered in the Cheshire area of England, he’s a “bog body” that was naturally mummified in a peat bog.
The Lindow Man is one of the best preserved ancient bodies in all of Europe. He might be a bit hard to look at though, to be sure. One isn’t used to seeing human remains in museums.
His discovery in 1984 caused a sensation. For the first time, it was possible to see what people from Britain’s prehistoric past looked like.
The Lindow Man met a violent death. He was killed by blows to the head, garroting, and then drown in the waters of a peat bog. It’s possible he was the victim of ritualistic human sacrifice.
11. Lewis Chessmen, Room 40
The Lewis Chessmen are one of the British Museum’s greatest medieval treasures. The pieces were found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.
They were likely made in the late 12th or early 13th century in Trondheim Norway. They’re named after the island where they were discovered.
The chess pieces are made of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth. Their expressions are very appealing, from the worried queen cradling her face in her hands to nervous warriors biting their shields.
Who was the owner? They might have belonged to a trader who was traveling from Norway to Ireland to sell them.
There are enough chess pieces for four distinct sets. There are 78 known pieces in the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland, none of which show any signs of use.
The Lewis Chessmen are TV famous. A replica of the set made an appearance in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In wizard’s chess, the pieces are enchanted and move by themselves.
12. Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, Room 41
In 1937, an Anglo-Saxon ship dating from around A.D. 600 was discovered. The ship may have been the elaborate burial place of an Anglo-Saxon king. It’s the most important early medieval grave discovered in Europe.
The burial chamber contained an astonishing treasure trove, including gold jewelry, Byzantine silverware, a magnificent casket, and an iron helmet.
The Sutton Hoo Helmet is one of only four surviving helmets from the period. It’s made of iron and covered with copper panels that show a range of animal and warrior motifs.
It’s a rather menacing face-mask that gives the impression of a flying beast. Originally, it had copper eyebrows inlaid with silver and garnets, ending in a silver boar’s head.
The helmet you see has been carefully reconstructed. But there’s also a replica on display that shows what the original would have looked like.
You can watch a documentary on Netflix, The Dig, which revisits the astonishing discovery.
13. Chinese Ceramics, Room 95
The museum also has a stunning collection of 1,700 Chinese ceramics. They were gifted to the museum by Sir Percival David, who owned one of the world’s greatest collection of private Chinese ceramics.
The pieces are renowned for their rarity, beauty, and historic value. The most important pieces are the David Vases, named after their collector, which date from the Yuan Dynasty.
They are the best known porcelain vases in the world because of the rare inscriptions around their necks, which date them to 1351.
When first discovered, the vases were believed to be the oldest example of blue and white porcelain in the world. The vases are beautiful, with the curling dragons and elephant handles.
14. Aztec Serpent, Room 27
In a cabinet at the back of the Room 27 you’ll find a colorful double-headed serpent. The work is made from a single piece of cedar and covered in tiny turquoise mosaics.
The serpent is an icon of Aztec art. It’s an image used in Mexican religious iconography. It may have been used in religious ceremonies.
The striking object was probably worn on ceremonial occasions. Its fang-like teeth are made from conch shells and its gums and nose from red oyster shell.
15. Prints & Drawings
The British museum has an outstanding collection of works on paper, dating from the 15th century to the present. It has an especially strong collection of old master works.
You’ll find works by Michelangelo, Albrecht Durer, Edgar Degas, Hogarth, Goya, and Picasso.
Because the collection is so fragile, the drawings are exhibited by means of a series of changing displays. When I visited, I saw some beautiful drawings by the Renaissance artist Raphael.
Practical Information & Tips For Visiting The British Museum
Address: Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG
The museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. People will typically start lining up for admission at 9:30 am.
On Fridays, the museum is open until 8:30 pm, with the last entry at 7:30 pm. Just book a general admission ticket and drop in.
Entry fee: Admission is free.
The museum also hosts one or two special exhibitions alongside their permanent collection, which you can check out in advance on their website. Most special exhibitions require you to purchase a ticket to enter.
Tube Stations: Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road, Goodge Street, and Holborn
You can take flash photography, but tripods, monopods, and selfie sticks are not allowed. Watch for signs indicating when photography is prohibited (often in special exhibitions).
For a great snap of the Great Court, head to the viewing platform on Level 3.
There are three restaurants onsite. The Court Cafe is a casual eatery in the Great Court with sandwiches, salads, and soups. There is also a pizzeria and a slightly more formal Great Court Restaurant.
Pro Tips: To avoid long lines, use the back entrance on Montague Street.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the British Museum. You may enjoy these other London travel guides:
- 3 Day Itinerary for London
- 5 Day Itinerary for London
- Best Museums in London
- Harry Potter Places in London
- Guide to the National Gallery of Art
- Guide to St. Paul’s Cathedral
- Guide to the Tate Britain
- Guide to Wesminster Abbey
- London Tourist Traps To Avoid
- Guide to the Tower of London
- Guide to the Churchill War Rooms
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