The British Museum: A comprehensive guide

It’s difficult to comprehend when standing outside the British Museum exactly the wonders stored within this wonderful building. Between the enormous columns and past the security men (random checks in place) lies a collection of artefacts related to human history and culture that numbers some eight million (count them! We dare you).

Take a step through those incredible doors and enter the main atrium. Take a breath at the sight of that awe-inspiring curved glass ceiling that undulates organically across the sky. It’s a breathtaking start to any museum experience and we haven’t even seen any artefacts yet! There is an enormous amount to see here so it’s best not to be over-ambitious and try to see it all in one go. Here are the highlights you should make an effort to see for the first time, though.

Egypt – ground floor

The British Museum holds some of the most unique and incredible Ancient Egyptian artefacts in existence. They’re scattered throughout the museum, but you’ll want to make a beeline for the ones on the ground floor first since they are truly masterpieces and incredible examples of which this magnificent civilisation managed to accomplish. First on the list is undoubtedly the Rosetta Stone, which is often surrounded by people. Notable for being the stone tablet used by French scientists to decode the Egyptian hieroglyphics, it is contained in a glass case and is permanently surrounded by tourists. The room as a whole is overlooked by the gigantic head and torso of Pharoah Rameses II who glares down on the visitors as if to say ‘Get out of my lounge, you peasants! And mind the giant scarab beetle!’ While the size of some of these sculptures is truly inspiring, it also pays to take a look at the smaller creations. In particular, the Jade Cat has been crafted with such
detail that it appears to have a life of its own, and is well worth a photo.

Visitors can get to this gallery by entering through the main door of the museum, moving into the atrium and heading through the door in the middle of the left wall.

If you’ve not had your fill of Ancient Egypt and want to see more, head up the east-facing stairs encircling the central column of the atrium and turn right to see the British Museum’s extensive collection on mummification.

Japan – from ancient times to the present

Tucked away above the Mitsubishi gallery is an area dedicated to Japanese art that possesses such extraordinary beauty that you won’t want to leave until you’ve seen literally everything. The centre is dominated by an intimidating set of Samurai armour that is made all the more fearsome by the formidable-looking fake moustache. The various bits and pieces from the Edo period – a time of immense artistic creativity in Japanese history – are also worth seeking out. But the British Museum isn’t just about taking items from the depths of history and exploring their value – you’ll also find a number of pieces by modern Japanese artists that express the culture’s admiration for all things created by Mother Nature.

You can get to the Japan gallery by first heading into the main atrium of the British Museum then heading up the right-hand stairs going around the column. Turn right at the top and then head through the mummification section until another sign tells you to turn right. The Japan section is at the top of the stairs.

Elgin Marbles

Don’t let the Museum’s slightly dubious claim to these sculptures stop you from admiring them (they were essentially looted by Lord Elgin and have long been at the heart of a bitter dispute between Britain and Greece). These beautiful creations once formed fascinating friezes at the Acropolis in Athens and, although some are in rather poor condition today, they still garner worldwide attention and universal acclaim.

The marble friezes depict battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs with many a thrilling scene to be viewed as you make your way around the purpose-built Duveen Gallery. They are regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments, hence the controversy of ownership.

Africa – The Sainsbury Galleries

Concealed in the basement of the British Museum, you’ll find a thought-provoking exhibition on Africa, which has a number of worthwhile exhibits. Firstly, the Tree of Life, a stunning sculpture that dominates the room, resembles freedom in the face of violence. Created entirely out of guns that were poured into Mozambique during the nation’s civil war, it is the masterwork of four local artists who wanted to raise awareness of the caches of weapons that still remain hidden throughout the country. Gazing upon it is a rather melancholy experience – any one of those weapons in the wrong hands could have been used to kill an innocent.

Other examples of art and culture from Africa come from further back in history, with truly beautiful textiles and paintings, sculptures and statues among the unique items that make this gallery unique.

You can find the Sainsbury Galleries by heading right as soon as you get into the atrium and then venturing down the steps in the centre of the room.

Other worthwhile galleries

The museum is too big to go into all of its collections in any level of detail and what we’ve outlined above should keep you occupied for at least a morning or an afternoon – possibly longer if you’re thorough. Other worthwhile exhibitions include the Assyrian sculpture and Balawat Gates in Room Six, the Clocks and Watches gallery in Rooms 38 and 39, The World of Alexander the Great in Room 22 and The Islamic World in the John Addis Gallery in Room 34. With more than eight million object though (counted them all yet?), you can’t really go wrong no matter which direction you go in.

Museum facilities

Practically all of the museum galleries offer free in-depth tours at various times of the day. A stand in each gallery tells you where to be and at what time if you want to experience one of these. Visitors can also make use of audio tours available in the atrium. These are also available for children.

The museum shop can be found under the central column in the atrium and there are a number of rest rooms and caf├ęs throughout the museum for those who require a snack. Situated as it is in the heart of London, there is no reliable parking near the British Museum and visitors are heartily encouraged to make the journey into London on public transport. However, this isn’t such a bad thing since the British Museum is located within easy access of excellent shopping and entertainment opportunities thanks to its proximity to Piccadilly Circus and central London. These include fashionable shopping streets, fantastic cinema in Leicester Square and excellent theatre in the West End.

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