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Exploring the British Museum: A Visitor's Guide

The British Museum is one of London's greatest tourist attractions and boasts one of the finest collections of antiquities in the world. All told, the museum contains more than 13 million artifacts from Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, the Roman Empire, Asia, China and Europe.

The private collections of Sir Robert Cotton (d 1631), Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (d 1724) and Sir Hans Sloane (d 1753) formed the basis of the museum when it was founded by Parliament in 1753. The collection moved to its present building in 1857, a stunning structure designed by Robert Smirke and completed by his brother Sydney, who was responsible for the circular Reading Room and the Dome. The main facade is 403 ft long and has a colonnade of 44 Ionic columns, making this one of Britain's most important neo-Classical buildings.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Ancient Greece and Rome
Ancient Greece and Rome Jean-Pierre Dalbra / photo modified
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The largest section of the British Museum - and one of the largest such collections in the world - the Department of Ancient Greece and Rome houses a wide variety of artifacts. Perhaps most notably among the pieces are the Chatsworth Head of Apollo, the statue of the goddess Demeter and a bronze head of Sophocles.

Room 8 contains the famous Elgin Marbles, a group of sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens brought to London by the Earl of Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century. These include the Horse of Selene and the largest remaining section of the Parthenon frieze. Other interesting artifacts include the beautiful Portland Vase named after the Dukes of Portland. Dating from the 1st century BC, it's widely regarded as one of the most exquisite examples of Roman glass artistry. Room 68 is devoted to terracotta, including the 4th century Head of Aphrodite.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt Danny Nicholson / photo modified
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Of particular interest in the British Museum's excellent Department of Ancient Egypt - the largest such collection outside of Cairo - are the colossal bust of Rameses II and the Rosetta Stone. Although the main treasures are displayed on the lower floor and cover a period of some 11,000 years, a fairly large collection of artifacts is located on the upper floor. Among this collection are a variety of Egyptian personal articles such as mirrors and clothing, along with musical instruments, furniture, papyrus, wall paintings, reliefs, rugs and tapestries.

The Rosetta Stone is a slab of black basalt dating from 195 BC bearing the trilingual inscription that enabled Egyptian hieroglyphics to be deciphered. Of the many Egyptian antiquities on display in the Museum, the collection of mummies and sarcophagi in rooms 60 and 61 and the papyri of room 62, including the famous Books of the Dead, are also noteworthy.

The Prehistoric World and Early Europe

The Prehistoric World and Early Europe
The Prehistoric World and Early Europe John Atherton / photo modified
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The museum's Prehistory Department encompasses exhibits on prehistoric societies in continental Europe and early Britain. Some of its displays include the earliest objects made by humans, while other highlights include art and archaeology from Europe and British history during the Roman occupation. Of special note is the spectacular Mildenhall Treasure, a hoard of Roman silver tableware dating from the 4th century found by a farmer in Suffolk in 1942. Of the 34 pieces, the most impressive is the Great Dish, made of silver and embossed with figures of Bacchus, Hercules and other figures from Roman mythology.

The Oriental Collection

The Oriental Collection
The Oriental Collection Margaret / photo modified
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A wide variety of Oriental and Asiatic artifacts (mainly metalwork, enamelwork, porcelain and glassware) are found among this collection. Of particular note: the Sambas Treasure of Buddhist images; the Great Stupa at Amaravati; and the Yuan blue and white porcelain. Also, visitors shouldn't miss the spectacular Tang horses and camels.

Touring the British Museum

The British Museum offers state-of-the-art multimedia guides detailing the history of over 200 objects, including virtual tours of the Parthenon sculptures and objects from the Ancient Egypt Department (£5, bookable online). If a little human interaction is needed, daily "eye-opener" tours are available free of charge. Lasting approximately 30 minutes and led by trained guides, these fun tours introduce visitors to some of the most interesting parts of the museum. Free 20-minute "spotlight" tours focusing on a particular culture are also available on Friday evenings, and a more in depth 90 minute "highlights" tour is available Fri-Sun (£12).

Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to the British Museum

The following Tips and Tactics will help ensure you get the most out of your British Museum adventure:

  • Shopping: The excellent onsite bookshop stocks numerous titles on ancient history, archaeology and art history, many of them written by museum curators. For the kids, the Family Shop offers games, souvenirs and educational items, while the Collections Shop sells guides and gifts. For shoppers looking for ritzier offerings, visit the Grenville Room Shop with its replica sculptures, jewelry and other luxury items. (Most items are also available online.)
  • Learning: Among the British Museum's most accessible learning opportunities are its lunchtime gallery lectures, a series of 45-minute talks given by a guest speaker or curator (free, Tues-Fri, 1:15).
  • Hands On Fun: A number of superb "Hands-on-desks" are located around the building offering a chance to pick up and inspect rare objects from the museum's collection, each staffed by a volunteer ready to tell you all about it (free, daily, 11am-4pm).
  • Food and Drink: Snacks and light meals are served at the Court and Gallery Cafés, while fine dining is offered at the Great Court Restaurant (it can get busy, so book ahead if possible).

Getting to the British Museum

  • By Underground (Tube): The British Museum is well served by underground stations at Tottenham Court Road, Holborn, Russell Square and Goodge Street.
  • By Train: For details of links to London from across the country, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.
  • By Bus: Numerous public buses stop close by, including stops at New Oxford St, Tottenham Court Rd, Gower St and Southampton Row.
  • By Bike: Bike racks are located inside the museum gates on Great Russell St.
  • By Road: The British Museum's location in the heart of busy London makes driving here difficult (it's also within the Congestion Charge zone, meaning charges apply). If you need to drive, park at an outlying train station and take the train or underground.
  • Parking: Very little on-street parking is available, and the nearest public car park is located at Bloomsbury Square.

Hours

  • Daily, 10am-5:30pm; Fri, 10am-8:30pm

Admission

  • Free

Address

  • Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
  • www.britishmuseum.org

What's Nearby?

The British Museum is located in the midst of a fantastic sightseeing area dubbed the Museum Mile. Stretching from King's Cross to the River Thames, it's where you'll find 13 of the city's most interesting museums and galleries. Some of the better known include the Courtauld Gallery with its fine collection of paintings including work by Rubens, Monet, Van Gogh and Cézanne; the fully restored Charles Dickens Museum with its original manuscripts, furniture and other items relating to the novelist; and the London Transport Museum with its displays of posters and historic vehicles, including the world's first underground steam train. Two lesser-known but equally interesting museums are the Cartoon Museum with its excellent collection of British comic art from the 18th century to today, and the Foundling Museum commemorating London's first home for abandoned children.

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