Established in 1753 and opened to the public in 1759, the British Museum is nowadays the third largest museum in the world, and the most visited one. Housing a collection of 8 millions of objects from all continents, the British Museum documents the story of different civilizations since the early times to the present.
The museum is divided into 10 curatorial and research departments, accordingly mostly to the origins of the pieces. Among the British Museum masterpieces, are famous objects such as the Rosetta Stone, that helped us finally understand the ancient Egyptian language. Besides its own objects, the museum holds exhibitions, most of the time there is a fee though.
The entrance to the museum is entirely free, so there is no reason to skip this opportunity! Although the British Museum collection has a lot of objects, it can easily be visiting in a few hours, so it is perfect even if you only have few days in London, and thinking about those who don’t want or can’t spend many hours wandering through the museum, we created this list of the most important and must-see pieces of the British Museum, containing the top 15 masterpieces you can’t miss.
Before visiting the British Museum, don’t forget to check the tips to visit museums in a short time!
British Museum: 15 Must-See Masterpieces
The collection at the British Museum is one of the most fascinating available for the public, you will find pieces from different countries and ages, that will help you understand a little bit more, the history of the civilization, and our own.
The museum is famous for its Egyptian collections and has more than 7 Egyptian Rooms, displaying from mummies and statues to famous manuscript such as the Book of the Dead. In my opinion, this is the best Egyptian collection I have seen so far (looking forward to my trip to Egypt).
The Assyrian panels are also impressive, I have seen some remarkable ones at Louvre, but the British Museum has a bigger collection.
Some of the pieces displayed at the British Museum are also the key to understand some passages of the history and helps us build part of our past.
The Younger Memnon(Ancient Egypt)
One of the pairs of colossal granite heads placed in the doorway of the of the Ramesseum mortuary temple in Thebes. One of the heads is still in the temple while the other was placed in the Ancient Room of the British Museum. The bust represents Pharaoh Ramses II wearing a Nemes, a traditional head-dress. Unfortunately, the rest of the body of the statue was not found.
Rosetta Stone (Ancient Egypt – Room 4)
In my opinion, this is one of the most important pieces in the museum. The famous Rosetta Stone, thanks to this stone, found in 1799 in Rashid town, it was possible to figure out the meaning of the hieroglyphic language used in ancient Egypt.
The stone, containing a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC, the text was written using hieroglyphics, Demotic and ancient Greek, with time it was possible to decode the hieroglyphics through the ancient Greek and the phonetic of the illustrations through the demotic text.
The decree inscribed established the divine cult of the new ruler, King Ptolemy V.
Mummies (Room 60 and 63)
The museum has over a hundred of human mummies in its collection, besides that, it also keeps more than three hundred animal mummies, that includes cats, dogs, bulls and even a 4-meter crocodile. Most of these mummies are on display and the most famous one in the British Museum is the Katabet mummy.
Katabet Mummy (Room 63)
Once a Chantress of Amun in Karnak, she served during the late 18th or early 19th Dynasty around 1300 BC. The mummy of Katabet was found in a Theban tomb alongside a male mummy, probably her husband Qenna. She was already old when she died, and her coffin was apparently designed for a man and later altered for her use.
The Book of the Dead (Room 62)
Besides the many papyrus that you can find in the British Museum, close to the mummies you will find the famous Book of the Dead, a funerary text consisting of magic spells to assist the dead in the hereafter.
Many of the spells in this collection are dated back to the 3rd millennium BCE and used to be painted on the walls of the pyramids and coffins before the creation of the Book of the Dead. After this creation, the book used to be placed in the coffins or burial chamber of the deceased.
Balawat Gates (Room 5)
Among the many Assyrian artifacts kept in the British Museum, is the Balawat Gates. The two sets located in the museum are part of a set of three gates, the last one being kept in Mosul Museum.
The gates originally adorned many buildings in Balawat (ancient Imgur-Enlil), one of the gates located in the British Museum, was from the temple of Manu (the Assyrian god of dreams), while the other was found in a small Assyrian site.
Hoa Hakananai’a(Room 24)
Its name means Lost or Stolen Friend. It is one of the sixteen Moais made of basalt, it was removed from the Easter Island and brought to London in 1868. This Moai, in particular, is important because of the illustrations carved in its back associated to the Birdman cult (tangata manu).
Double Headed Serpent (Room 27)
A serpent with a head in each end, made by Aztecs and believed to be used or wore during religious ceremonies, the serpent represents Quetzalcoatl Its base is made of wood and decorated with turquoise and shells. This is one of the 25 serpents in Europe and is believed to be given to Hernán Cortés as a gift by the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II Who initially thought that Hermán Was a personification of the god Quetzalcoatl.
The Lewis Chessmen (Room 40)
Dated back to AD 1150-1200, the chess pieces were found in the Western Isles, that used to be part of the Kingdom of Norway, but nowadays os part of Scotland. Apparently, they were buried for safekeeping, in route to Ireland where it would be sold.
The chess pieces show the political and cultural connection between the kingdoms of the British Isle and Scandinavia during the Middle Age and the growing popularity of the game Chess in Europe in this period. Chess was created in India around 500 BC and brought to Christian Europe via the Islamic world.
Oxus treasure (Room 52)
A collection of 180 pieces originally from Persia, nowadays in the region of Tajikistan, close to the Oxus river. The collection consists of mainly small pieces made of gold plus 200 coins from Persia and was found by the river. The collection, initially, had more than 1500 coins and other small sculptures, that were probably melted down.
It is believed that this treasure belonged to a temple.
The Royal Game of Ur (Room 56)
The game consists in two gameboards and was found in a royal tomb in the ancient city-state of Ur, in Iraq. The two boards are dated back to the First Dynasty of Ur, before 2600 BC, is considered one of the oldest examples of board gaming ever found.
Alongside the game, a tablet partially describing how it should be played was found, allowing us to understand and play the game 2,000 years after its creation.
Samurai Armor (Room 93)
Among the Japanese collection in the exhibition in the British Museum, the most notable one is the Set of Armour dated from the 16th to 19th centuries. The pieces form a Samurai complete armor, made mainly of iron and steel and protected the samurais from arrows coming from different directions and later from bullets. This kind of set changed little since its creation and remained in use until the Edo period (1600 – 1868).
In this helmet specifically, based on the crest between the horns, it may have belonged to a retainer of the Maeda family, the lords of Kaga Province.
Tahargo Sphynx (Room 65)
Originally from the ancient kingdom of Nubia, the sphynx represents the face of the Nubian king Tahargo, the forth and last king to rule over the combined kingdom of Ancient Egypt and Kush.
The statue was found close to the Templo of Amun at Kawa in Nubia, now Sudan.
Lindow Man (Room 37)
A bog body of a young man found in a peat bog near Lindow Moss, North West England. It was not the only body found in the same location, a year before its discovery, the body of a woman was found in the same peat bog, but the Lindow Man remains one of the most well-preserved bog bodies found in Europe.
Lindow Man was a healthy man in his mid-20’s, apparently he had a high status as his body doesn’t show evidence of heavy work. Although it is known that he suffered a violent death, the real causes of it are unknown.
Ife Head (Room 25)
A bronze head believed to represent Ooni, an African ruler of the ancient kingdom of Ife in Nigeria, the city was considered the religious and royal capital of the Yoruba people.
The mask was made before Africans has any contact with Europeans, therefore, different than many thinks, the masks have no influence from Greeks or Roman sculptures. The realism in this kind of art is something unusual in the African culture. In total, eighteen heads were found, they are believed to be made by the same artist.