The British Museum is one of the most famous museums in England – a collection of over 8 million items dedicated to human history, art and culture. Located in London, and established in 1753, it was the first public national museum in the world. Its collection is truly astounding and beautifully presented, with absolutely no way of seeing everything in just one day.
It has to be acknowledged however, that the breadth of the collection is a result of British colonialization, and that the original collection was curated by Sir Hans Sloane who was a traveller, but also a slave owner. As the museum’s collection expanded over time, its ownership of some of its most famous objects originating in other countries is disputed and remains the subject of international controversy today through repatriation claims – most notably in relation to the Elgin (Parthenon) marbles of Greece, and the Rosetta Stone of Egypt.
What to see – Top 10 Highlights
1. The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone is a stone made in around 200BC with an Egyptian decree written on it in 3 languages – Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script and Ancient Greek. It was effectively the way in which hieroglyphs were translated because pre the Rosetta Stone, no-one could decipher them.
The stone was carved in Egypt and displayed in a temple, but eventually used as building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rosetta. It was discovered there in 1799 by the French. When the British defeated the French they took the stone to London in 1801, and it’s been on display in the British Museum since 1802.
Should it be returned? It had been used as building material locally anyway, so there is an argument that taking it back to England enabled its preservation. Even so, perhaps now such an important item should head back to its origins.
2. Sutton Hoo Mask and Burial Ship
Wohoo, an item without controversial origins. Sutton Hoo is where the most valuable treasures ever found on British soil were discovered in 1939, when a lady discovered the burial site of an Anglo Saxon King! The most likely candidate is King Raedwald of East Anglia, the most powerful King in England in the 600s and who died in around 624 CE. The famous King’s mask is on display at The British Museum.
I actually visited Sutton Hoo in the summer of 2021, and you can read my post on it and the surrounding area HERE.
3. Egyptian Mummies
Some of the most popular galleries at the British Museum are dedicated to Ancient Egypt. The museum has a collection of over 140 mummies and coffins of which only a small number are on display due to space and preservation restrictions. They are absolutely incredible though, and some date back as far as 1600BC!!!
4. Enlightenment Gallery
Dedicated to the 18th-century Enlightenment era, this beautiful gallery was once known as the King’s Library. It was built between 1823 and 1827 to house over 60,000 books collected by King George III. The gallery now has lots of pieces in it, including fossils, ancient artefacts, Roman pots and more, which acts as more of an introduction to the Museum before seeing the more detailed galleries.
5. The Great Hall
Wow the Great Hall is beautiful. Arriving there for the first time really does make you just take it all in for a while. The Hall was finished in 2000 and is the largest covered square in Europe, creating a central hub in the Museum’s quadrangle shape! For the most amazing view, turn with your back to the entrance and take the stairs up one floor until you come out in a room with a small gallery window – look out of it, this is the view you get!
6. The Parthenon Marbles
Back to controversy we go. The classical Greek sculptures on display were originally part of the Parthenon – you know, that over 2000 year old incredible temple in Athens. A rich Englishman – Lord Elgin, chiselled them off and brought them back to England in 1801 (the same year as the Rosetta Stone!). Even at the time this was controversial, and today The Acropolis Museum in Athens displays a portion of the complete frieze, aligned in orientation and within sight of the Parthenon, with the position of the missing elements clearly marked and space left should they be returned to their home city. I really hope they are.
7. Japanese Samurai
The beautifully ornate ensemble was made in the 1700s for a samurai lord in western Japan when armour like this was mostly used ceremonially. The armour was recently preserved, taking 8 months and during which it was cleaned using special brushes and a museum vacuum cleaner. Textile conservators secured loose fibres and added additional support where needed, and finally created a new mount for the object. It’s really beautiful, if a little smaller than I expected!
8. The Lewis Chessman
These were actually the highlight of my museum visit. The chessmen were made in the 1100s and are carved from walrus ivory. They were discovered in 1831 on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in 1831. They constitute some of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets. Today, 82 pieces are owned and usually exhibited by the British Museum, 11 are on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and there are 2 at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde – you can read about my visit HERE.
I was also watching Harry Potter the other day and noticed that in Film 2 – The Chamber of Secrets, the chess pieces used when Harry and Ron are playing is a Lewis Chessmen replica set, sold at the British Museum!
9. Easter Island Mo’ai
Well we couldn’t go too long without some controversy could we? When Commodore Richard Powell arrived on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in 1868, the statues were buried deep in the earth at the ceremonial village of Orongo, cloaked by a stone structure. Powell asked the islanders to help to excavate the mo’ai, and 2 were taken on a ship back to England and gifted to Queen Victoria. The Queen then donated them to the British Museum.
Easter Islanders are now calling for the statues to be returned to their homeland, but it should be said that they have shown great gratitude towards the museum for taking such good care of their ancestors, saying they are ‘being very respectful in asking for their return’.
10. Special Exhibitions
The British Museum rotates special exhibitions on a quarterly basis. This means there is always something new to see at the museum, and the carefully curated collections may be on loan from other countries or museums meaning you can see other collections without having to travel. Examples over the years have included exhibitions on Tutankhamun, The Vikings, The Arctic, Troy, and Emperor Nero.
At the time of my visit there were 2 special exhibitions – one on Hokusai and one on Peru. Hokusai was a Japanese artist born in 1760 who lived until he was almost 90 and is famous for his beautiful, intricate drawings. He was my main reason for visiting the museum as my Granny loved his work and I know she would have loved the exhibition.
The Peru exhibition told the story of Peru through the ages, to mark Peru’s bicentennial year of independence. The exhibition highlights the history, beliefs and cultural achievements of the different peoples who lived here from around 2500 BC to the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s, and their legacy in the centuries that followed. It was a small but fascinating exhibition.
There are of course, many more than 10 main things to see in the Museum. You can also check out The Barnack Burial, a bronze age skeleton and The tomb-chapel of Nebamun, an Egyptian accountant in 1350BC. Then there’s also the famous Hinton St Mary Mosaic from Roman Britain, and amazing collections from The Islamic World, Ancient Iran, Mesopotamia and Nubia galleries. The Assyrian Lion Hunt Reliefs, sculptures and Balawat Gates are also absolutely incredible.
Food & Drink at the Museum
The Museum has various food and drink options. On the ground floor of the Great Hall is the Court cafe, serving tea, coffee and snacks. It sometimes also serves afternoon tea when bookings are made ahead.
On the third floor of The Great Hall is the wonderful Great Court restaurant, which serves to a menu of hot meals, wine and cocktails. As we visited at Christmas, we treated ourselves to a Christmas lunch and Prosecco – not the worst way to spend a few hours! When I visited again in February, the food looked suspiciously similar minus the stuffing and sprouts.
Also on site is a Pizzeria in the south-west corner of the Ground floor – just turn left immediately after you enter the Main Entrance and go past the cloakroom following the signs, as well as a first floor café lounge, and outdoor dining in the summer.
Getting to the Museum
Getting to the museum is straightforward. If you’re arriving at major train stations King’s Cross, St Pancras or London Euston you can walk to the museum within 20 minutes. If not, the nearest Tube stations are Russell Square (Piccadilly line), Tottenham Court Road (Central line) or Holborn (Central/Piccadilly lines).
Entrance in to the museum is free so you can just walk in without a ticket, although in COVID times you may need to book an entrance slot. If you want to visit the special exhibitions, they do normally cost a bit extra, ranging from around £5-£20 a ticket.
I found the British Museum housed an incredible collection which I have been privileged to see, and I highly recommend a visit to this amazing place if you get the chance.
However, I also acknowledge that the origins of some of these pieces are uncomfortable and if the originating nation wants them back and can preserve them to the same level as we can here in England, I totally see the argument. I don’t doubt the Mo’ai statues would be more appreciated and treasured on Easter Island than in London with hundreds of tourists trekking past largely oblivious to their significance. Perhaps in time the British Museum should be about British history, with special exhibitions curated temporarily on rotation from other countries. Though you could argue Colonialism and Empire is a part of our history, and one we should address but not erase. What do you think? Stay safe and happy travelling everyone!