The British Museum is one of London’s foremost museums, with more than eight million artefacts from around the world, telling the unique stories of human history and culture over several millennia. As a distinctive part of the city’s museum scene, there’s no better place to kick off your exploration of London’s historic treasures. Here’s a quick look at 20 highlights (and facts) which make the British Museum one not to be missed …
The Rosetta Stone
It’s hard to compile a British Museum highlights blog without a mention of the Rosetta Stone, which is situated in Room 4 on the Ground Floor of the museum. The relic dates from 196 BC, and is decorated with three languages – Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphic. The Rosetta Stone is an incredibly important piece, as it provided the first time the language of Ancient Egypt had been translated since the days of Ancient Rome. While staying at the Grand Royale Hyde Park, this piece should definitely make your ‘must see’ list.
These famed Greek sculptures were once part of the Parthenon, built more than 2,500 years ago – and dedicated to Athena, a prominent Greek goddess. They have formed a major element of the British Museum’s collection ever since 1801, when Lord Elgin (who also provides their sometime namesake, ‘the Elgin Marbles’) brought them to the UK.
To this date, the marbles are considered amongst the most significant archaeological discoveries in history, providing valuable insights into the way the Ancient Greeks lived and worshipped.
Sutton Hoo Relics
Since their discovery in 1939, this vast selection of Anglo-Saxon relics have gained significant recognition. Noted as arguably the most important architectural find in Britain, guests at the Grand Royale Hyde Park can discover much more about the nation’s ancient past, including seeing exhibits which include everything from masks to burial mounds.
The oldest item
The oldest item at the museum is considered to be a stone chopping tool, which dates back almost two millennia.
Just 1% is viewed by the public
Only approximately 1% of the museum’s inventory is ever on public display, though that still amounts to millions of intriguing items to explore.
A controversial exhibit
As well as being striking to look at, the Parthenon Marbles have a long history of controversy surrounding their acquisition and inclusion at the British Museum. The piece became part of the museum while the British Empire was expanding, and there have been several requests by the government of Greece to return the Parthenon Marbles. The British Museum has refused as it is acting as a custodian of the piece, and offers world-class preservation.
The Great Hall
Since it was completed in 2000, the Great Hall has gained recognition as an architectural marvel, with a ceiling made from glass and steel and an array of wonderful things to see while staying at hotels in Inverness Terrace, including a Reading Room, 1st century Roman statues and a totem pole created by the Haida people, who hail from British Columbia.
Greek and Roman finds
Upstairs, the museum offers a wide selection of detailed objects which uncover Greek, Roman and Etruscan life. From mosaics to statues, there’s also plenty of information to help you understand what you’re looking at in more detail.
Artefacts from the Halicarnassus Mausoleum
Considered one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was built in what is now known as contemporary Turkey. The structure was severely damaged by earthquakes, but it was once 40 metres tall, complete with stunning sculptures and statues.
Some of the most popular pieces at the British Museum are drawn from Ancient Egypt, including more than 140 mummies (though only a fraction are ever on public display). Some of the oldest acquisitions date back 3,500 years.
The Enlightenment Gallery
The era of the Enlightenment during the 18th century provided a great deal of new knowledge and learning – much of which is on display in this lavish gallery on the first floor. As a fitting introduction to the museum itself, it was built between 1823-27, and once housed a vast book collection belonging to George III. Some of these books are still on display (though many are at the British Library), and you can also see everything from statues to an early dinosaur skeleton.
The civilisation once known as Mesopotamia sprang up around 8,000 years ago, and occupied the area known now as Southern Iraq. One of the most significant artworks of this period is the Standard of Ur, which is on display at the British Museum. Covered with engravings and depicting both a battle and celebratory banquet, it’s a wonderful addition to the objects on offer.
Medieval and Renaissance artefacts
Thanks to a generous donation from the Rothschild family, the British Museum also houses a vast collection of lavish items from the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Many of them once belonged to European royalty, and help showcase changing aesthetics during these tumultuous points in history.
Banksy once displayed here (in secret)
The underground artist Banksy once convinced the British Museum to display his work ‘Early Man Goes to Market’ as part of the Roman Britain exhibition.
War impacted the museum
During the Second World War, many of the most significant finds at the museum were moved, in an effort to prevent bomb damage during the Blitz.
The museum is the largest worldwide
The British Museum has the distinction of being the world’s largest museum, spanning 92,000 square metres in total.
A significant exhibition
The 1972 ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition became the most popular in British history, with 1.2m visitors flocking to see it.
A rare work by Michelangelo
The only known surviving (full-size) cartoon by Michelangelo, entitled ‘Epifania’, is one of the acquisitions by the British Museum.
An online collection
There are around 2 million objects viewable online as part of the British Museum’s online collection.
The Rosetta Stone is very heavy
This important relic, crafted from granite, weighs around 760 kilograms – and is considered so precious that it was one of the relics relocated to a secret location during WW2.