British Museum: 15 Must-See Masterpieces

Housing over 8 million objects that preserve the history and culture of humankind across 2 million years, the British Museum collection is a must-see for anybody passionate about any of these topics, or just a museum freak.

Its collection is divided into 10 curatorial and research departments, accordingly mostly to the origins of the pieces.

Among the British Museum highlights are famous objects such as the Rosetta Stone, which finally made it possible to translate and understand the ancient Egyptian language, and the Book of the Dead, a collection of rites and spells that helped us understand the funerary traditions of ancient Egypt.

Besides its own objects, the museum holds exhibitions, most of the time there is a fee though. An interesting fact is that one of the most visited museum exhibitions in the world took place here when the British Museum exhibited the artifacts of King Tutankhamun, which included his famous mortuary golden mask.

For those who like Egyptian history, the British Museum houses many artifacts including mummies, in my opinion, it is one of the best museums in Europe, if you want to see ancient Egypt pieces, I have included some mummies in this list of what to see in the British Museum.

Although the museum has a lot of objects, it can easily be visiting in a few hours, so it is perfect even if you only have a few days in London.

Thinking about those who don’t want to get museum bored, or don’t have enough time to see everything inside the museum, we created this list of masterpieces, with the most famous items and the best exhibits that you must see at the British Museum.


British Museum Highlights

British Museum: 15 Must-See Masterpieces

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.

Visiting the British Museum is a must for those spending some days in London and its entrance is entirely free, so there is no reason to skip this opportunity!

Museum Visit Tip:
Before visiting the British Museum, don’t forget to check the tips to visit museums in a short time!

Where is the British Museum located

The museum is located in Great Russell Street, London. It is pretty easy to get here and you can take both the metro or bus.

Metro

The closest stations to get here are the Tottenham Court Road and the Holborn, they leave you really close to the museum, you will just have to walk a little.

Bus

There are many buses that pass nearby. Among them, the 73 bus, which is one of the best for tourists, as it passes by some important points in London. For more information about the buses line, check here.

You can also get the ticket for the Hop on Hop off bus, that will leave you right in front of the museum!

Visit the British Museum

The British Museum collection 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.

It is famous for its Egyptian collections and has more than 7 Egyptian Rooms, displaying from mummies and statues to famous manuscripts 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 this museum are also the key to understand some passages of history and helps us build part of our past.

Opening Hours
Museum galleries are open daily from 10 am to 5:30 pm. On Fridays, it is open until 8:30 pm.

What to see at the British Museum

Definitely take or time wandering through the corridors, despite the huge collection, it doesn’t take much to visit it completely.

But for those who don’t have the time, looking for the highlight of the British Museum below will definitely make your visit worth it!

The Younger Memnon
source: British Museum

The Younger Memnon (Ancient Egypt)

One of the pairs of colossal granite heads placed in the doorway 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

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 hieroglyphics 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 illustrations through the demotic text.

The decree inscribed established the divine cult of the new ruler, King Ptolemy V.

Top Tip
Although the entrance is free, don’t miss the chance to get a guided tour through the British Museum, to learn more about the history of the masterpieces displayed. Book your guided visit here!

British Museum Mummies

Mummies (Room 60 and 63)

Among the vast collection of Egyptian artifacts in the British Museum, are the human mummies. Besides that, the museum also keeps more than three hundred animal mummies, which includes cats, dogs, bulls and even a 4-meter crocodile.

The museum has over 140 mummies and coffins in its collection, and most of these mummies are on display. The most famous of them is the Katabet mummy.

They are all in great condition, and which one has very unique details. Some are decorated and painted, others are just covered, showing the amazing process and work of mummification, typical of the ancient Egyptian civilization.

One of the mummies in the British Museum is completely uncovered though, for those who are more curious!

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.

Top Tip
Looking for a special treat? Don’t miss the chance to have a traditional English Afternoon Tea at the British Museum. Choose your tea and try traditional finger sandwiches, pastries, and scones while you admire the famous glass roof of the museum. Book here this experience!

The Book of the Dead

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.

It is considered one of the oldest books in the world.

Balawat Gates

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 on a small Assyrian site.

Parthenon Marbles and Sculptures
source: greece-is

Parthenon Marbles and Sculptures (Room 18)

Originally from the Parthenon in Athens, 2,500 years old Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Athena.

The marble pieces are also known as Elgin Marbles and were made under the guidance of the Ancient Greek sculptor and architect Phidias.

The marble collection includes a 75 meters long frieze picturing the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. Another half of this frieze is still in Athens, displayed in the Acropolis Museum.

It was removed from Parthenon by orders or Earl’s Elgin, who was a British ambassador in the Ottoman Empire, hence the name Elgin Marbles, alongside sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum between 1801 and 1812 and sent to Britan with the pretext that he had received an official decree to do so.

By some, it was considered as looting and vandalism, which led to an investigation and later, to the exoneration of Elgin. The parliamentary committee decided though, that it was safer for the Marble pieces to be given asylum in a free government, such a British, back in that time.

After that, the Marbles pieces were sold to the British government, who later gave it to the British Museum.

Even after issuing his ow defense in 1810, the legality of Earl’s Elgin actions though is still disputed nowadays by the international community and the British Museum.

Top Tip
To learn more about the British Museum and its pieces, I do suggest following their Youtube channel. Check the Curator’s Corner series, it is my favorite, which episode a different Curator tells about one piece. Some of them are not even on display, so it is the only chance to see what is kept behind the walls!

Hoa Hakananai'a

Hoa Hakananai’a (Room 24)

The Maori statue from Easter Island whose 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 with the Birdman cult (tangata manu).

Double Headed Serpent

Double Headed Serpent (Room 27)

A serpent with a head on 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
source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

The Lewis Chessmen (Room 40)

Dated back to AD 1150-1200, the chess pieces were found in the Western Isles, which used to be part of the Kingdom of Norway, but nowadays the part of Scotland.

Apparently they were buried for safekeeping en route to Ireland where it would be sold.

The chess pieces carved out of walrus tusk, show the political and cultural connection between the kingdoms of the British Isle and Scandinavia during the Middle Ages 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

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, which were probably melted down. It is believed that this treasure belonged to a temple.

The Royal Game of Ur
source: British Museum

The Royal Game of Ur (Room 56)

The game consists of 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, which is considered one of the oldest examples of gaming board 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.

British museum Samurai Armor
source: creationbaumann.com

Samurai Armor (Room 93)

Among the Japanese collection in the exhibition in the British Museum, the most notable one is the Set of Armor dated from the 16th to 19th centuries.

The pieces form a Samurai complete armor, made mainly of iron and steel and protected the samurai 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

Tahargo Sphynx (Room 65)

Originally from the ancient kingdom of Nubia, the sphynx represents the face of the Nubian king Tahargo, the fourth and last king to rule over the combined kingdom of Ancient Egypt and Kush.

The statue was found close to the Temple of Amun at Kawa in Nubia, now Sudan.

Lindow Man

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 does not show evidence of heavy work.

Although it is known that he suffered a violent death, the real causes of it are unknown.

Ife Head
source: British Museum

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 have 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.

British Museum Facts

  • The British Museum is the largest museum in the world, covering around 92.000square meters
  • It is also the oldest national public museum. Opened since 1759, the British Museum is older than the USA for 17 years!
  • For over 30 years the museum had its own metro station
  • When looking for a perfect site to build the museum, a place called Buckingham House was considered, but Montague House ended up being the chosen location. Later Buckingham House was rebuilt as Buckingham Palace!
  • The oldest object in the British Museum is a stone chopping tool believed to be more than 2 million years old.
  • Only 1% of the museum’s collection is displayed to the public
  • During the temporary exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamun” displaying the artifacts of King Tutankhamun, around 1.7 million people visited the museum, making this the most successful exhibition in British history.
  • Among the Mesopotamian tablet in the collection, there is one considered the oldest customer complaint, from nearly 4,000 years ago.

 


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