In Bloomsbury, London is the world’s finest collection of historical artefacts under one roof – and even the roof is a world-class masterpiece. This article will highlight the must-see exhibits at the British Museum. If you only have time to visit one museum or gallery, look no further.
The British Museum is the world’s oldest national gallery (although the Vatican museum is older). There are eight million objects, seven main galleries and ninety-five (large) public rooms inviting six million visitors per year.
This self-guided tour will show you the highlights and explain a little about (the controversial subject of) how they came to be here.
The Great Court and history of the museum
Enter by the main (south) entrance and you arrive in the Great Court. The courtyard and roof was completed by Norman Foster and Partners in 1998. It is the largest covered space in Europe. At its centre is the original Reading Room of the British Library. This is where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital and others like Mahatma Gandhi, Arthur Conan-Doyle, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde spent time during their careers. (The books have since been moved to the new British Library, opened in 1998. You can read more about the new British Library by following the link below):
From the main entrance, head across the Great Court to the right hand (east) side. Enter Room 1.
This is the ‘Enlightenment Room’ (a period from 1680 to 1830). It was typical for the young wealthy to set off on a ‘Grand Tour’ after their studies to see and collect exhibits from around the world. Here are some of the objects from the museum’s founding collection of Sir Hans Sloane, who became a royal physician.
Some items are man-made and some are natural. Hans Sloane also invented milk chocolate (the first to add cocoa to milk and sugar!). Sloane, who was also president of the Royal Society, left his collection King George II in 1753. Shortly thereafter the collection was displayed at Montague House (near the British Museum) for private candle-lit tours.
In 1823, King George IV donated the royal collection to the nation. This included his father’s extensive collection of books, scientific objects and a burgeoning collection of artefacts from around the Empire. Robert Smirk was engaged to design a purpose-built museum – the aptly named Room 1 is the original first room of the museum. And importantly the museum was free to enter for ‘studious and curious people’.
By 1890 the collection was vast and had outgrown the museum. To make space, all objects belonging to the natural world went to found the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The books in Room 1 today are on from Houses of Parliament.
Must-see exhibit: George III’s ‘solar system orrery’. Created in 1750 to illustrate Copernicus’s theory (of 1543) that the sun is at the centre of our solar system.
Must-see exhibit: Model of the Rosetta Stone 196 BC (see the actual stone in Room 4). This is one of the most important must-see exhibits at the British Museum. Here you can get close and examine its features. Found by Bouchard (Napoleon’s archaeologist) in 1798, it was the French scholar Champollion who translated the three languages (on the stone from top to bottom; Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic (everyday) Egyptian and ancient government Greek). Notice the circled ‘Cartouche’ stating Ptolemy V. These repeating cartouches unlocked the secret to the translations describing an agreement between church and state by Ptolemy V. In 1802, and after the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt, the stone was moved to Britain. The French weren’t happy then, and not unsurprisingly the Egyptians even less so today.
Here is the (medieval renaissance) Waddesdon collection of Ferdinand Rothschild (one of the five sons who founded the banking dynasty). It was gifted to the nation by Rothschild.
Must-see exhibit: Holy Thorn Reliquary. Here is a thorn from Christ’s Crown – a reliquary from 1400 from the French Valois court. (This original went for repair in 1860. It was switched for a fake; not realised until 1920. Meanwhile the original was acquired by Rothschild.
Head across the Great Court to the opposite side.
Must-see exhibit: Assyrian Palace giant ‘human headed winged bulls’ with five legs (so they can be seen from the front and side) from 700BC. These bulls protected the palace – magic guardians against misfortune. These are the heaviest objects in the museum. (Iraq fell to the Turkish Ottoman Empire who granted excavation and export rights to the British).
Must-see exhibit: Here the Assyrian Palace Reliefs created around 700BC – in today’s Iraq. Notice the Assyrian Lion Hunt – reliefs depicting the rather cruel kingly sport of chasing and killing lions in an enclosed arena.
Must-see exhibit: the Nereid Monument was a family tomb in Turkey. The tomb dates from 300BC and displays sea gods.
Must-see exhibit: in 400BC Athens was at its peak. On the Acropolis (the ‘high city’) the Parthenon was built – a temple dedicated to Athena the goddess of wisdom, craft and war – and also the patron of Athens. Mortals were not permitted to see the richly painted marble sculptures that adorned the walls high up inside of the Parthenon – this being reserved for Athena herself. Today, around half of the Parthenon is displayed in Room 18. (The ruling Ottoman Turks did not care for the marble sculptures, since they were Islamic. And previous generations of Christians had already ‘de-faced’ the sculptures owing to them being non-Christian. In 1816, the British (led by Lord Elgin) successfully applied to the Turks remove the marbles.
Originally, the Parthenon sculptures were brightly painted with leather and metal adornments. Sadly, the Victorians sand papered the statues in an effort to clean them up!
The presence of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ in London remains a serious political issue for the Greeks. In defence, the marbles (that had also suffered serious damage by the Venetians who used the Parthenon as store for gunpowder) were at risk of disposal by the Turks.
Exit the Parthenon galleries, turn left and proceed to the NW corner. Head to the top of the stairs, or take the lift at the bottom of the stairs).
Part 2 will highlight the key exhibits of the ancient world and medieval Europe.
(If you wish, take a break for a quick lunch in the courtyard or contemporary dining at the Great Court Restaurant, pictured).