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.
If you want to know more about the British museum must see masterpieces, check the list below.
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British Museum Highlights: 15 Must-See Masterpieces
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. Some of the pieces displayed here are also the key to understand some passages of history and helps us understand our past better.
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, if you are looking for an Egyptian collection outside Egypt, here is the place. The Assyrian panels are also impressive, I have seen some remarkable ones at Louvre, but the British Museum has a bigger collection.
Besides its own artworks and artifacts, the museum holds exhibitions, most of the time there is a fee though.
⌚️Hours: The museum galleries are open daily from 10 am to 5:30 pm. On Fridays, it is open until 8:30 pm.
British Museum History
The British Museum was founded in 1753 and opened to the public in 1759, and is today the most visited museum in London and the world, and is considered the third largest museum in the world today.
When it was opened, the British Museum was the first public, free museum in the world and brought together collections from the Cottonian Library, previously private collections of manuscripts, and the also private collection of naturalist physician Sir Hans Sloane.
The purchase of the Sir Hans Sloane collection by the UK Parliament is what started the foundation of the British Museum. With the growth of the collection, there was a need to divide as pieces of this collection in two museums, and thus the Natural History Museum of London was created, where today the part of the collection dedicated to science and biology is kept.
👉Did you know? The first public museum open in the world is also British and is located in Oxford. Called the Ashmolean Museum, it was opened in 1683 and holds the personal collection of Elias Ashmole.
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.
Even if you don’t have much time to admire each artwork and artifact of the British Museum, make sure to at least check the British Museum artworks below, they will definitely make your visit worthy!
The Younger Memnon
This is one of two colossal granite heads born at the entrance to Ramses’ mortuary temple in Thebes, Egypt, the temple and known as Ramesseum. The statue represents Rameses II the pharaoh of the 19th Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, wearing the Nemes, the fabric we see covering the head of the pharaohs.
Although not considered a crown, the Nemes still symbolizes the power of the pharaoh.
Initially the statue was formed by the complete body of the pharaoh, but the head that we see today in the British Museum is a single part that remains, the rest of the statue was never found.
The other statue that matches this temple door is still in the Ramesseum.
Location: Ancient Egypt Room.
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, by French soldiers during the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte, 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.
Location: Ancient Egypt, Room 4.
👉Top Tip: Although the entrance is free, you can have a more immersive visit and learn about the pieces displayed in the museum with a guided tour, this guided tour also includes a skip-the-line pass so you don’t have to worry about wasting time in line! Book it here.
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 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!
Location: Room 60 and 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.
Location: Room 63.
👉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!
The Book of the Dead
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.
Location: Room 62.
In the ancient city of Balawat (in the region of Iraq), the gates of the buildings used to be decorated with three richly decorated bronze bands. Each telling a story, often of the Assyrian exploits. Today they are considered to be one of the most important works of art of the Neo-Assyrian era.
The gates themselves were made of wood and due to time, they ended up decomposing, leaving behind the large bronze bands.
The gate that we now see on display at the British Museum was discovered in 1878 by Hormuzd Rassam, and taken to the museum, there it is also possible to see a replica of the gate, which gives us an idea of its grandeur. This set the gates belonged to the temple of Manu (the Assyrian God of dreams).
Location: Room 5.
Parthenon Marbles and Sculptures
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 own defense in 1810, the legality of Earl’s Elgin actions though is still disputed nowadays by the international community and the British Museum.
Location: Room 18.
🎫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 they keep behind the walls!
The Maori statue from Easter Island whose name means Lost or Stolen Friend.
It is one of the sixteen Moais 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).
Location: Room 24.
Double Headed Serpent
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 some believe Hernán Cortés received it as a gift from the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II, who initially thought that Hermán Was a personification of the god Quetzalcoatl.
Location: Room 27.
The Lewis Chessmen
Dating 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.
Location: Room 40.
A collection of 180 pieces originally from Persia, nowadays in the region of Tajikistan, close to the Oxus river.
The collection is made of mainly small pieces made of gold plus 200 coins from Persia and was found by the river.
It initially, had more than 1500 coins and other small sculptures, which were probably melted down. Some believe that this treasure belonged to a temple.
Location: Room 52.
The Royal Game of Ur
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 the 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.
Location: Room 56.
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.
Location: Room 93.
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.
Location: Room 65.
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.
Location: Room 37.
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.
Location: Room 25.
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.
The closest stations to get here are Tottenham Court Road and the Holborn, they leave you really close to the museum, you will just have to walk a little.
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 bus line, check here.
You can also get the ticket for the Hop on Hop off bus here, that will leave you right in front of the museum!
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 in 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.