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Travel guide and tips for visiting the British Museum

One of the oldest museums in the world

Address

Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, United Kingdom

GPS: 51.520965868811, -0.12545487590647

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Founded or opened in 1753 in Bloomsbury, the British Museum in London is one of the oldest museums in the world where its pieces date back in history. On a national level, it is the most visited site in the United Kingdom with over 6 million visits annually to see the British Museum in Great Russell Street. Dedicated to history, art and human culture in all its forms, the British Museum has a vast collection of objects estimated at over 7 million objects or pieces in the museum. These items are unique in that they come from every continent and cover over 5,000 years of human history stretched all the way back to the origins of our recent civilisations. These include the parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin marbles, which are part of the parthenon collection, and the Aztec double-headed serpent from Mexico carved from a single piece of cedar and covered in a mosaic of turquoise oyster shell tiles. The transit of these parthenon items and other ancient Greek artefacts from the Acropolis to Britain was arranged by a British ambassador to the Ottoman empire known as Lord Elgin. The British Museum is one destination worth a visit soon with free unlimited entry allowing you to take your time in a place where visitors could happily spend an entire day exploring.

 

At the time of its creation, the British Museum was based on the incredible personal collection of Sir Hans Sloane (former royal physician, naturalist and great Irish collector). It was initially housed in the 17th century manor house of Montagu House (the former home of the 1st Duke of Montagu, a diplomat of the Kingdom of England). This building was demolished in the mid-19th century to make way for a larger building capable of housing the museum’s new acquisitions, some of which were gifted to the museum. Over the years, the British Museum’s collection has been supplemented by the addition of royal stocks and rare items from former British colonies and from conflict zones around the world. In the twentieth century, the museum was recognised by its peers as a universal reference. Moreover, a full day’s visit is not too long to fully appreciate all the treasures on display at the British Museum. Many of the pieces bear witness to the advanced techniques once used by the greatest civilisations. In the late 1990s, the central courtyard of the great court space was redesigned and now includes the great court restaurant. A magnificent glass and steel roof, designed by the British architect Norman Foster, was built over the court in 2000, modelled on the dome of the Reichstag Palace in Berlin.

Amongst the British Museum collection the must-see works are the famous Rosetta Stone used by Jean-François Champollion to decipher hieroglyphics and the Egyptian mummies and sarcophagi from ancient Egypt and ancient Egyptian civilization in an excellent state of preservation. Also of interest are the impressive winged bulls in the Assyrian collection, the colossal statues in the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the majestic marble friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, the sculpted columns in the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, and the legendary early 7th century funerary ship found at the archaeological site of Sutton Hoo (Suffolk, UK) with its splendid iron helmet. One of the best British Museum tips is that, while the collection can be overwhelming and you can easily spend a whole day exploring the history of the world, a museum map and the audio guide will help orient you when you pay a visit to the British museum. Entrance to the British Museum is free but it is recommended to book in advance to guarantee entry and get information about the special exhibitions, temporary exhibitions and other displays on exhibit you’ll have time to see when you enter through the main entrance on the ground floor and also see the gallery and famous objects on display in other parts of the museum.

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  • One of the largest museums of human history and culture; the quantity and richness of the collections accumulated over several centuries (divided by geographical area and historical period)
  • The collections on Sudan, Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome; the diversity of the exhibits: prehistoric artefacts, ancient objects, archaeological pieces, anthropological collections, works of art, jewellery, sculptures, drawings and paintings by masters, engravings and prints, cultural and religious elements, weapons and handicraft tools, burials, coins and medals…
  • Number of civilizations highlighted (Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Mayan, Aztec, Inuit, Chinese…)
  • The Great Elizabeth II Court and its glass roof, renovated in the early 2000s
  • The splendour of the former Reading Room, once frequented by renowned figures such as Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Mahatma Gandhi…
  • Activities organised for children
  • The museum shop is well designed and very varied
  • Free admission every day of the year (except for the majority of temporary exhibitions); the possibility of opting for a guided tour, audio-guided or tactile (available in several languages)
  • Photo opportunities inside the museum; central location in the City of London; Russell Square picnic area within walking distance
  • The millions of items in the British Museum are not all on display at the same time, but only in turn, so that visitors can see something new every year (a total of 50,000 works of art are on display simultaneously).
  • Hans Sloane was an art enthusiast who collected no less than 80,000 objects during his lifetime, including an encyclopaedic library and numerous pieces of art. Before his death at the age of 93, he placed a clause in his will to ensure that his personal collection would not be dispersed to the four corners of Britain but rather be sold in one piece. According to the Swiss art and cultural historian Pascal Griener, this was the basis for the creation of the British Museum in 1753 and the beginning of the public’s visits in 1759 (the museum’s founding charter states that it is free of charge). Unlike other European powers at the time (including France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire), England had no major art collection or even a proper library. To finance the purchase of Hans Sloane’s private collection, the government came up with the novel idea of organising a large national lottery, which was a great success with the general public. As a result, the state and royalty did not spend a single penny on the acquisition of the art and the manor of Montagu House.
  • Until 1830, visits to the British Museum were of poor quality because local aristocrats and museum curators did not like the idea of welcoming outside visitors of a lower social rank than themselves. According to Pascal Griener, it was not until the arrival of two new foreign librarians (the Swiss Joseph Planta, who became director of the museum, and the Italian Antonio Panizzi, who made a major contribution to the cataloguing of all the items in storage) that the British Museum took off. The museum’s policy then changed radically, favouring openness and enabling discovery for as many people as possible (with the aim of developing the knowledge of the general public and ensuring a social role based on sharing).
  • Over the years, the British Museum’s collections has been enlarged by the addition of private collections from wealthy individuals or the purchase of new works decided by the curators and financed by the government. Not all of these acquisitions were made in the proper manner. At the height of the British Empire in the 19th century, the United Kingdom ruled over most of the world’s oceans (its territory covered 26 million square kilometres and included almost 500 million subjects). Looting was widely used to add to the museum’s artistic heritage, much to the dismay of local inhabitants. The British crown took many valuable objects from all over the world (as it did with other European colonial empires). They were erected as trophies and spoils of war for the British army or traded in exchange for diplomatic protection from certain territories that had little choice but to cede part of their heritage. In this large-scale enterprise, Pascal Griener estimates that many pieces were unfortunate enough to be destroyed, looted, lost or vandalised on their way to Britain. Some art objects are still the subject of a major dispute with their country of origin (as is the case for Greece, for example, with the friezes and marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens).
  • The Swiss cities of Basel (1661) and Zurich (1671) were the first in the world to open public cultural museums.
  • The Rosetta Stone is a black granite stone that was discovered in 1799 during the French expedition to Egypt under Bonaparte. This stele contains a series of inscriptions in three scripts: hieroglyphs at the top, Demotic Egyptian in the middle and Ancient Greek at the bottom. It was thanks to this stone that Champollion succeeded in deciphering hieroglyphics for the very first time. Stolen by the French, the Rosetta Stone was returned to the British after the signing of a peace treaty in 1801 ending the military campaign in Egypt.
  • Launched in 1997, a British government scheme (called the Portable Antiquities Scheme) allows anyone who volunteers to conduct archaeological research with a metal detector. In 2019 alone, 1,311 ancient objects were discovered in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including a brooch that is approximately 1,100 years old. This well-preserved piece of jewellery is a rare example of Anglo-Saxon art from the medieval period and is on display at the British Museum. In total, over 82,000 objects, finds and artefacts have been uncovered since the programme began (including the Viking treasure from Harrogate). About a third of the objects found last year have been acquired by various museums to add to their collections.
  • Select in advance which of the museum’s themes you would like to explore to maximise your visit time. The British Museum’s collections are divided into 9 thematic departments: Ancient Egypt and Sudan; Greco-Roman Antiquities; Middle East; Asia; Africa, Oceania and the Americas; Britain, Europe and Prehistory; Prints and Drawings; Coins and Medals; Conservation and Scientific Research.
  • Every day, between 11am and 4pm, the British Museum gives visitors the opportunity to handle objects directly from the Museum’s collection in the presence of volunteers.
  • A special website created by the British Museum, in partnership with Google, allows you to discover online works of art and historical objects through a digital timeline spanning all continents and eras.

Where to eat

  • Cafe Oz
    (perfect for breakfast)
  • Il Castelletto
    (tasty Italian cuisine)
  • The Blue Door Bistro
    (great stop)

Where to go

  • British Library
    (country's major library)
  • Regent's Park
    (Royal London park)
  • Sir John Soane’s Museum
    (wide range of curiosities)

Where to stay

  • Ruskin Bed & Breakfast
    (ideal for a short stay)
  • The Montague on The Gardens
    (very British style)
  • The Bloomsbury Hotel London
    (modern and cosy)

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