The British Museum is one of the world’s great museums. It is the most-visited museum in the United Kingdom and its exhibits chronicle the story of the western world through an unmatched collection of antiques and displays that include the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the Iron Age Lindow Man and numerous Egyptian mummies and sarcophagi.
The museum is the world’s first national public museum and it was established in 1753, starting off with the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (the physician and scientist, for which Sloane Square in Chelsea is named) and the museum’s collection was later expanded upon considerably as a result of the expansion of the British Empire.
As the museum grew, various collections were spun off to form other museums and institutions including the Natural History Museum and the British Library.
What to see at the British Museum
There are over eight million objects in the museum’s collection and some visitors spend days exploring the museum’s exhibits. It is one of the world’s largest museums with over 100 galleries open to the public and 3.2km (2 miles) of exhibition space.
Upon entering the museum you come upon the Great Court with its distinctive tessellated glass roof, which is the centrepiece of the 2001 renovation and is considered Europe’s largest covered square. This area was previously home to the British Library before the library moved to its new premises at St Pancras.
Highlights of the British Museum
If you’re pressed for time and just want to see the museum’s highlights, you should be able to see the following objects in just a couple of hours.
Holy Thorn Reliquary
Ground floor, room 2A
The Holy Thorn Reliquary is an elaborate shrine dating from the 1390s that was made for John, Duke of Berry to house an individual thorn given as a gift by King Louis IX of France, who purchased what he believed was an authentic Crown of Thorns in Constantinople in 1239.
Tang dynasty figures
Ground floor, room 33
This is a group of 13 figures, around 1m (3⅓ ft) high, that was found in a tomb believed to have belonged to the Chinese general Liu Tingxun, who died in 728. The earthenware figures consist of Buddhist tomb guardians, civil servants, horses and camels.
Ground floor, room 24
Hoa Hakananai’a is a moai from Easter Island, dating from between 1000 and 1600. Although much smaller than other moai found on Easter Island, Hoa Hakananai’a is considered one of the finest examples of Easter Island sculpture.
Ground floor, room 4
The Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite stone tablet from Memphis in Egypt that was produced in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty. The stone features inscriptions in three different texts: in Ancient Egyptian using both Demotic and hieroglyphic script and also in Ancient Greek because the three texts are otherwise identical the Rosetta Stone has been instrumental in decoding Egyptian hieroglyphic text. It is the most-visited artefact in the British Museum.
Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs
Ground floor, room 10
The Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs depict the royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal and are regarded as a masterpiece of Assyrian art. The reliefs date from 645–635 BC and came from the North Palace of Nineveh in Mesopotamia (now in northern Iraq).
Parthenon sculptures (Elgin Marbles)
Ground floor, room 18
The Parthenon sculptures (also known as the Elgin Marbles or the Parthenon Marbles) are a series of sculptures that were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. There is considerable controversy whether these sculptures should be returned to Greece.
The Royal Game of Ur
Upper floor, room 56
This ancient board game comes from the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq and dates from the First Dynasty of Ur (2600 BC) making it one of the oldest board games ever found.
There is also a tablet in the museum, dating from 177 BC, that is inscribed with the game’s rules.
Upper floor, room 52
The Oxus Treasure consists of around 180 pieces of metalwork (mostly gold and silver) plus around 200 coins. The treasure was found by the Oxus River in Tajikistan and dates from the Achaemenid Persian period with most items from the 6th to 4th centuries BC and the coins estimated to be from around 200 BC.
Upper floor, room 40
The Lewis chessmen is a set of chess pieces dating from the 12th century that have been made from walrus ivory and whales teeth. The chessmen were found on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland but are believed to have been made in Trondheim in Norway. They comprise one of the few complete chess sets to survive from the medieval period.
Sutton Hoo royal grave
Upper floor, room 41
This exhibit is comprised of treasure from an Anglo-Saxon ship burial that was found at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in Suffolk. The burial mound at Sutton Hoo contained a 27m (88½ ft) long ship packed with treasure including Byzantine silverware, gold jewellery and the famous Sutton Hoo ship-burial helmet. It is believed that the treasure dates from the early 7th century.
The Sutton Hoo site in Suffolk where the treasure was discovered is now managed by the National Trust and is open to the public
The Portland Vase
Upper floor, room 70
The Portland Vase is a famous Roman cameo glass vase dating from around 5–25 AD and it is one of the few such vases to survive 2000 years.
Before the British Museum took possession of the vase, it was lent to Josiah Wedgwood who spent four years trying to duplicate the vase in jasperware. The copy once owned by naturalist Charles Darwin (Wedgwood’s grandson) is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum and copy given to Erasmus Darwin is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Brass plaques from Benin
Lower floor, room 25
The brass plaques from Benin (also known as the Benin Bronzes) are a group of over 1000 bronze plaques that once decorated the royal palace in the Kingdom of Benin, which is now part of Nigeria. The British Museum has 700 of the bronze plaques with the remainder in other museums, with 327 in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and a large number in museums in Germany and the United States.
Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
The British Museum has the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and its Egyptian collection includes 140 mummies and the Rosetta Stone, which was the key to deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Highlights of the museum’s Ancient Egypt and Sudan collection include:
- Gebelein predynastic mummy (circa 3400 BC)
- A granite statue of the shipbuilder Ankhwa, from Saqqara (circa 2650 BC)
- Several of the original casing stones from the Great Pyramid of Giza (circa 2570 BC)
- Inner and outer coffin of Sebekhetepi from Beni Hasan (circa 2125–1795 BC)
- A fragment of the beard of the Great Sphinx of Giza (14th century BC)
- Colossal quartzite statue of Amenhotep III (1350 BC)
- 99 of the 382 Amarna Tablets (1350 BC)
- Mummy case and coffin of Nesperennub from Thebes (circa 800 BC)
- Statues of Amun in the form of a ram protecting King Taharqa (683 BC)
- Obelisks of Nectanebo II from Hermopolis (360–343 BC)
- The Rosetta Stone (196 BC)
- Mummy of Hornedjitef from Thebes (3rd century BC)
Department of Greece and Rome
The British Museum has one of the world’s largest collections of Classical antiquities with over 100,000 Greek and Roman artefacts dating from around 3200 BC (the beginning of the Greek Bronze Age) to the third century (when Christianity was established as the official religion of the Roman empire).
The collection of Classical antiquities includes the Parthenon Marbles (also known as the Elgin Marbles) and parts of two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
Highlights of the British Museum’s Greek and Roman collections include:
- The Parthenon Marbles (the Elgin Marbles) (447–438 BC)
- One of six remaining Caryatids from Erechtheion (415 BC)
- Frieze slabs from the Temple of Athena Nike (427–424 BC)
- Two colossal figures from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (circa 350 BC)
- The Amazonomachy frieze from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus showing the battle between the Greeks and the Amazons (circa 350 BC)
- A column base from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (340–320 BC)
- Part of the Ionic frieze which sat above the colonnade at the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (330–300 BC)
- Demeter of Knidos from Knidos in Asia Minor (circa 350 BC)
- Lion of Knidos from Knidos in Asia Minor (350–200 BC)
- Harpy Tomb reliefs from Xanthos in Asia Minor (480–470 BC)
- The reconstructed facade of the Nereid Monument from Xanthos in Asia Minor (390–380 BC)
- The Tomb of Payava from Xanthos in Asia Minor (375–350 BC)
- Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa from Chiusi (150–140 BC)
- The Jennings Dog statue from central Italy (2nd century)
Department of the Middle East
There are around 330,000 objects in the museum’s Middle East collection including the largest collection of Mesopotamian artefacts outside Iraq.
Some of the museum’s antiquities from Nimrud in northern Mesopotamia (in modern-day Iraq) were excavated by Agatha Christie.
Highlights of the museum’s Middle Eastern collection include a pair of human-headed winged lions with reliefs from Nimrud (circa 860 BC) and the Cyrus Cylinder (559–530 BC) from ancient Iran, which is considered the world’s first charter of human rights.
Department of Prints and Drawings
The museum holds over two million prints and around 50,000 drawings and its print room is comparable with the Hermitage, the Albertina in Vienna and the collections in Paris.
Highlights of the British Museum’s collection of prints and drawings include drawings by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Albrecht Dürer.
Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory
This department covers a broad area that essentially encompasses European history outside the Greek and Roman empires. The collection includes millions of items dating from prehistoric times to the present day.
Highlights of this department include:
- The preserved body of Lindow Man, discovered in a peat bog in Cheshire in 1984 (1st century AD)
- Vindolanda Tablets from Hadrian’s Wall (1st and 2nd centuries)
- The Mildenhall Treasure from East Anglia (4th century)
- Anglo-Saxon artefacts from the Sutton Hoo royal grave in East Anglia (from the 6th and early 7th centuries)
- The Lewis chessmen from Lewis in the Outer Hebrides (12th century)
- Europe’s largest collection of clocks and watches
- Two of Charles Darwin’s chronometers from his voyage on HMS Beagle (1795–1805)
- An oak clock designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1919)
Department of Asia
The museum’s collection of Asian artefacts include over 75,000 objects depicting the history of the entire Asian continent from Neolithic times to the present day. Many of these artefacts come from the collections of explorers and colonial officers of parts of the British Empire.
Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
This is one of the world’s best collections of ethnographic artefacts of indigenous cultures with over 350,000 artefacts spanning thousands of years of history.
This includes the world’s largest collection of African arts and cultural artefacts, the best collection of Māori artefacts outside New Zealand and the Hoa Hakananai’a and Moai Hava moai from Easter Island. Artefacts from the Americas include the 12m (39ft) tall Kayung totem pole from Graham Island in British Columbia, the largest collection of Aztec turquoise mosaics in Europe including the double-headed serpent and the Aztec Codex Zouche-Nuttall and Codex Waecker-Gotter, two rare pre-Columbian manuscripts.
Highlights of this department include:
- Hoa Hakananai’a and Moai Hava moai from Easter Island (circa 1000–1600)
- Kayung totem pole from Graham Island in British Columbia, Canada (1850)
- Codex Zouche-Nuttall from Oaxaca (14th–15th centuries)
- Double-headed serpent from Mexico (15th century)
Visiting the British Museum
The British Museum is located in the Bloomsbury neighbourhood, which sits between the Oxford Street shopping district and Kings Cross and St Pancras railway stations. The closest tube stations are Holborn, Russell Square and Tottenham Court Road which are all less than a 10-minute walk from the museum.
An audio guide is available in 10 languages (Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish) for £7. The audio guide includes 260 commentaries on the museum’s highlights and self-guided tours on specific themes within the museum’s collection.
The museum operates a programme of free eye-opener tours, which are essentially 30 to 40-minute tours of a specific gallery. These depart from the relevant gallery at the following times: 11.15am Roman Britain (room 49), 11.30am Ancient Greece (room 17), 11.45am Ancient Iraq (room 56), noon Africa (room 24), 12.15pm Collecting the World (room 2, tour departs outside room 1), 12.30pm The Enlightenment Gallery (room 1), 12.45pm Mexico (room 27), 2.15pm World of Money (room 68), 2.30pm Ancient Egypt (room 64), 2.45pm Medieval Europe (room 41), 3.15pm Ancient Rome (room 70) and 3.45pm Assyrian Reliefs (room 6).
There is also a programme of free 45-minute lunchtime gallery talks that take place at 1.15pm Tue–Fri.
The museum also run free 20-minute tours on Friday evenings that focus on highlights of the collections including the Parthenon (at 5pm and 5.30pm), the Enlightenment (at 6.30pm and 7pm), the Rosetta Stone (at 5pm and 5.30pm) and Death in ancient Egypt (at 6.30pm and 7pm).
There are also a couple of more comprehensive guided tours that give you a more extensive tour of the museum (for a charge). These may be a good idea if you have more money than time as they give you a good introduction to the museum’s highlights in 60 or 90 minutes. The 60-minute introductory tour costs £30 and departs daily at 9am (tickets must be pre-booked in advance) and covers rooms one and two providing a great introduction to the museum and the 90-minute highlights tour shows you the museum’s highlights including the Rosetta Stone, the Lewis chessmen and the Parthenon Frieze. The highlights tour costs £14.
The above talks are tours are operated by the museum and conducted by experts in their field but there are also several independently-operated tours of the museum. These vary in quality and are usually more expensive than offical tours, although some of them are very good and these independently-run tours run longer and may be less crowded than tours run by the museum.
Some of the independently-operated tours of the British Museum include:
There are a number of cafes and restaurants in the museum’s Great Court including the Great Court Restaurant and the more casual Court Cafe and Pizzeria. The museum also has an excellent gift shop.
Around 95% of the museum is accessible by wheelchair. There is a wheelchair lift to the right of the steps at the main entrance and the entrance on Montague Place has level access.
Although you can easily spend several days in here, the average visitor spends five hours in the museum and a quick visit to the museum’s highlights should take around three hours.