In the pantheon of museums in London, one stands out from the crowd. By virtue of being the biggest, oldest, and for a long time (before the Natural History Museum came and knocked it of its pedestal) the most popular of London museums; the British Museum is a titanic cultural attraction. It’s also one of many free things to do in London, giving it that extra penny-pinching appeal. So, with all this going for it, planning a visit to the British Museum may seem pretty overwhelming. Well, fear not: as always, Secret London is here with the lowdown.
What is the British Museum?
So, just incase you didn’t know; the British Museum is the world’s oldest national public museum. Inside, you’ll find collections of art, literature, and other artefacts telling the story of human history. Over six million people visit each year, which is more than the population of Libya – impressive, right? It consistently held the title of the most popular tourist attraction in the UK for over a decade – and is now still in an admirable third position.
The British Museum was founded in 1753 and opened in 1759, making it older than the USA(?!). It was created by an Act of Parliament to accommodate the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, who also gives his name to Sloane Square. A vast number of treasures have since been acquired by the museum over the years. The British Museum is split into sections corresponding to 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. Oh, and a drop dead gorgeous glass roof covering the stunning Great Court.
The British Museum has become so big over the years that it’s had to expand twice – once to a site in Kensington, the other now located in St Pancras. These expansions became, respectively, the Natural History Museum and the British Library. The British Museum also has a fabulous Reading Room, which has finally reopened to the public recently (yippee).
What should you I at the British Museum?
It may be called the British Museum, but most of the objects have actually been loaned from other countries or purchased from private collections. You also can’t escape the fact that many items were claimed by underhand tactics of the British Empire, leading several countries to demand the return of their artefacts. Since there are eight million objects here, we’ve selected the top things to see at the British Museum. You can thank us later.
1. The Rosetta Stone
Not just an expensive language guide, you know. The ancient translation tool is written in both Egyptian and Greek, and is the reason we can read hieroglyphics. Carved in 196BC, it also happens to be the British Museum’s most visited object, so you’ll need to be patient to get to the front.
2. Easter Island moai
Easter Island is a bit of a trek, but since the British Museum has one of the famed heads in its collection, you only need go as far as Bloomsbury.
3. Egyptian mummies
The British Museum has a long history with mummies, having hosted Tutankhamun’s treasures in 1972. Today, you can find sarcophagi, the mummy of Katebet, and mummified pets, including cats and fish. Just lovely…
4. Parthenon sculptures
These figures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, have seen a never-ending saga of ownership which shows no sign of stopping. Greece claims they were illegally taken after Lord Elgin made a dodgy deal with the ruling Ottoman Empire, whilst the UK maintains it was a legal purchase under the laws of the time. Regardless of which side you take, you can enjoy the beautiful sculptures in a gigantic hall in the British Museum’s west wing, and learn a lot about ancient Greece in the process.
5. Aztec serpent
A fascinating lot, were the Aztecs. When they weren’t busy indulging in ritual sacrifice, the Aztec created beautiful objects, like this stunning double-headed serpent mosaic. Find it on the ground floor of the British Museum.
6. Olduvai stone chopping tool
It looks fairly unremarkable, until you discover it’s the oldest human-made artefact in the British Museum. At a whopping 1.8 million years old, this stone tool is quietly one of the most impressive objects in the entire building.
7. Egyptian scutpture
When you think of the British Museum, this is probably the first thing that comes to mind. A huge hall, full of busts of Egyptian gods and kings, this is one of the museum’s most impressive sights.
8. Winged bulls of Assyria
They once guarded the gates in the ancient cities of Nimrud and Khorsabad in Iraq, but now the bulls take up residence at the British Museum, looking downright imposing.
9. Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and you can find parts of it at the British Museum. Statues from the mausoleum can be found in the Ancient Greek wing on the ground floor.
10. Shrine of Amaravati
In a corner gallery of the British Museum, you’ll find the Great Shrine of Amaravati, painstakingly recreated to fill the whole room. It was one of the oldest and largest Buddhist shrines in India, and is definitely worth a visit.
11. Lampedusa cross
Not everything in here is ancient. The Lampedusa Cross was acquired by the British Museum in 2015, to commemorate the 359 refugees who died when their boat sank off of the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013. A local carpenter, Francesco Tuccio, carved the cross out of the wreckage of the boat, making a hugely poignant artefact in the process.
The Round Reading Room at the British Museum
Located smack bang in the Great Court of the British Museum is the Round Reading Room. The room was once the site of the British library, before it relocated to its current home in St Pancras in 2008. It also dates back all the way to 1857! As such, it has been privy to such visitors and students ranging from Arthur Conan Doyle to Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and even Lenin.
Following the relocation of the library, the room was used as an exhibit space briefly, before finding its current role: storing the museum’s archive of books and papers and objects that trace the museum’s history. The British Museum is now offering guided tours of the space – giving bibliophiles a chance to check out the legendary archival room.
The tour will only last twenty minutes, and the volunteer tour guides will be keeping a close eye on visitors – so you won’t be able to sneak off and investigate the centuries old documents. And, no, it’s not a library so you won’t be able to borrow any of the books. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty impressive sight for bookworms and history buffs alike.
Tours run once a week and are completely free, but do require signing up ahead of time. Oh, and they only have space for 20 people in each tour group, so you’ll definitely want to give yourself plenty of time to book ahead. Find out when the next tour is running and book your space here.
Anything else I should know?
We’d advise you get to the British Museum nice and early if you want to beat the crowds and avoid the queues. Alternatively, the British Museum is open late on Fridays, giving you ample time to wander round the galleries after most people have left. Picking up a map for £2 will give you their “Top 10 objects to see” tour, which will take you through most of the major galleries (a cheap paper copy, without the top 10, is available for a “suggested donation”). Alternatively, audio guides can be rented for £7, and come in 10 languages.
The British Museum is free to enter, but donations are welcome; you’ll find donation points scattered around the open areas. Small bags can be left in their cloakroom, but large luggage (such as wheely cases) is forbidden. For a fee, a nearby hotel may hold onto them for you. A number of tours, events and exhibitions are held at the British Museum – find the schedule and how much they cost here.
Food and drink
No fewer than four eating options at the British Museum. Casual fares come in the form of the Court Cafe and the Coffee Lounge. The museum also offers an on-site Pizzeria and the Great Court Restaurant is the fancier spot, serving seasonal mains under the museum’s stunning roof.
Best spot for photos
The Great Court is massively Insta-worthy. But for a different view of the British Museum, head to the viewing platform on Level 3 for a dramatic elevated vista.
Before you go
The British Museum is the largest indoor space mapped on Google Street View. If time is tight, browse around ahead of your visit and pick out what you want to see.
Final word of warning
Be on the lookout for the vengeful ghost of an Egyptian god. Amun-ra is supposedly a resident of the Egyptian Room, and he’s been rumoured to snatch people from nearby Holborn station. Spooky, right?
The British Museum is open daily from 10am-5pm (10am-8.30pm on Fridays) and the nearest station is Tottenham Court Road. Find out more and plan your visit here.
Also published on Medium.