The British Museum in London is rightly regarded as one of the best museums in the world. It has one of the most comprehensive collections, holding objects which date from the dawn of humanity to the modern day, as and you’d expect, it’s one of the biggest museums in existence. With this in mind, you’re going to need some British Museum tips to ensure that you see everything you want to see, especially if you have limited time.
Well, you’ve come to the right place! Because not only am I a glamorous, terribly chic travel blogger (stop laughing at the back; I see you there), I also have a side job working in a museum. Add to this my frequent trips to London’s finest, and I’m in the perfect position to give you some quality British Museum tips. I’ll let you know how best to get there, what the highlights are, and where to find them.
And the British Museum is definitely one worth visiting – it’s a must-do for any trip to London. It’s not Britain-centric; it can truly be enjoyed by anyone from anywhere in the world – it’s a safe-keeping place for humanity’s shared heritage. No matter what your level of history knowledge is, you’ll definitely find something that’ll amaze you, delight you, or give you a passion that you never knew you had.
So let’s get exploring!
British Museum Tips – Logistics
How To Get There
Good news! The British Museum is nice and easy to reach.
Hop on the London Underground, and get yourself to Holborn station (located almost bang in the middle of the London Underground map, on the red Central Line). When you arrive on the platform, follow the signs to the exit – if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll notice signs telling you exactly which exit to go out from in order to reach the museum. Once you’ve passed though the ticket turnstile, you’ll find yourself on High Holborn Road.
Cross the street when it’s safe (it’s a pretty busy road), turn left and walk until you find Southampton Place – it should be the first turn on your right. Walk down this short street to where it meets Bloomsbury Way, another busy road. Cross over here, turn left once more, and walk until you find Bury Place on your right. Walk up here, and the British Museum will be unmissable in front of you.
If you have a rental car, you can park in the vicinity of the museum, but it really is more hassle than it’s worth. The nearest car park is at Bloomsbury Square, postcode WC1A 2RJ.
The British Museum is open every day, from 10am to 5.30pm (8.30pm on Fridays). The only days it’s closed are January 1st, Good Friday, and the 24th, 25th, and 26th of December.
The British Museum, like most other large museums in London, is completely free to enter! Yay!
However, as a museum worker myself, please do strongly consider making a donation – it REALLY does help. Times are hard for museums, and they cost a hell of a lot of money to keep them as they should be – just heating a building as large as the British Museum, necessary for keeping the objects in perfect condition, will cost an absolute fortune. You can make a donation at the bag check, or there’s plenty of donation bins once you enter.
Arriving at the museum
One does not simply walk into the British Museum. You’ll have to go through a zigzag queue first, which will take you into a large tent for bag checks (another British Museum tip: if you’re particularly adverse to queuing, get there early, or later in the day. You generally won’t experience any queue if you arrive in the afternoon). If you have a backpack or bag of any kind, it’ll be efficiently checked by the security staff before you can go onward into the museum.
Don’t bring wheeled suitcases with you – they won’t be allowed under any circumstance.
Food and drink
It might seem common sense, but don’t eat or drink as you’re going around the museum. There’s no better way to give a museum worker a heart attack than holding a can of something fizzy near an artifact! At the very least, you can expect a good scolding, and your snacks being binned.
There’s a couple of cafes (and a pizzeria!) inside the museum, with attached dining areas – I can definitely recommend the cafe’s cakes! If you’d rather eat outside of the museum, check out the Museum Tavern pub just over the road from the main entrance. It’s cozy and reasonably priced.
British Museum Tips: Seeing the highlights
The British Museum has an absolute treasure trove of a collection, housed in a huge building – so how on earth do you see it all?
Here’s my best British Museum tip of all: don’t try.
That might seem counter to all my urgings for you to visit, but it’s absolutely true. It’s much too large to take in, certainly on one visit. Even I, a museum worker who is passionate about visiting museums, will happily admit that museum burnout is A Thing. After a few hours, you’ll start going completely blind to all of the info your poor overloaded brain is trying to take in. You’ll start walking past fascinating objects, thinking “meh” in your head, which is just a sad state of affairs.
It’s far better to give yourself a list of highlights and see those, or pick a department and focus on that.
So I’m going to give you my personal list of British Museum highlights, the objects you definitely want to see. It covers a range of periods and cultures, and will give you a great overview of what the British Museum has!
And it’s time to let you into a little museum secret – if there’s something you particularly want to see without having large crowds around it, aim to see it in the hour before the museum closes. This is a tip which works in pretty much every museum in the world; it’s nearly always the quietest time.
So without further ado, let’s have a look at the must-sees! And click this link for a handy British Museum map so you can see where you’ll need to go.
1. The Rosetta Stone
If you exit the Great Court through the doorway opposite the Collections Shop (ie where all those nifty history-themed souvenirs are, and where I tend to spend a vast fortune because I need socks with hieroglyphics on), you will be immediately confronted with the majesty of the Rosetta Stone. Although it’s up for debate on whether it should be housed here or in Egypt, it’s undoubtedly one of the British Museum’s stars, and is suitably guarded by museum invigilators. There’ll nearly always be a crowd lining up to examine it in close quarters, so be patient.
It’s a hugely important piece of stone – it has the same writing (a decree about the royal cult of King Ptolemy V) written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic, and Greek. Hieroglyphs, which were indecipherable before the stone’s discovery in 1799, were suddenly blown wide open by scholars being able to translate the Greek, and so learn the meaning of the ancient Egyptian words. Egyptian histories and writing were suddenly accessible for the first time, meaning that the Rosetta Stone was the single catalyst for most of the knowledge we have on Ancient Egypt. Which is pretty incredible, when you think about it.
The Rosetta Stone is the most-visited item in the whole museum, and you definitely need to see it!
2. Statues of human-headed winged lions
Carry on walking past the Rosetta Stone in a straight line from the Great Court; you can’t miss these huge statues!
These are one of my favourite items in the museum – they’re colossal and mightily impressive. And so they should be: they originally formed the entrance to the throne room of King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859BC) at Nimrud in northern Iraq. They were seen as protection from demons, and you can certainly see why; you can see the power and intimidation in the beautiful carving. Even more impressive is the perspective; the statue actually has five legs, so it looks correct from either the front or side.
Fun fact: my boyfriend has a very detailed tattoo of one of these on his leg. And yes, apparently it hurt quite a lot.
3. Ancient Egyptian collection
Head back to the Rosetta Stone, and take a left turn – the Egyptian collection will stretch out in front of you.
Like the Rosetta Stone itself, which stands slightly aloof from the rest of the collection, the Ancient Egyptian collection is one of the stars of the British Museum. It has items from the ancient Nile Valley civilisation from 10,000BC, all the way to later items from 800AD, and it’s all simply stunning. Highlights include the huge statue of Ramesses II (you can’t miss that one, in either sense of the phrase), mummies and coffins, and beautiful Egyptian arts.
My personal favourite is the ancient bronze statue of a cat, which looks to be in exactly the same condition as when it was made back in around 664BC. I’m always happy to worship cats at all times.
4. Ancient Roman statues
Go out of the far end of the Egyptian collection, and up the staircase (admiring the mosaics as you go!) – go through the Greek and Roman collection until you reach Room 70.
The Ancient Greek and Roman collection has some absolutely wonderful pieces – and I say this as someone who’s visited Rome twice, and who has seen quite a lot of Roman artifacts in situ! There’s plenty of world-class items on display, including the famous (and controversial) Elgin Marbles, the statue of a crouching Venus, and even a complete gladiator’s helmet.
However, my favourite of all the Roman items are the statues of the Roman Emperors, and assorted family members. From a slightly battered Augustus and Tiberius, to the father and son combo of Vespasian and Titus, to the dreamy visage of Marcus Aurelius, you get a real sense of the subject’s personality. Also quite touching are the statues of Hadrian and Antinous – the emperor is placed side-by-side with his male lover, in an acknowledgement to LGBT history.
5. Sutton Hoo
Carry on straight through the Romans and Greeks, passing through the clock exhibition. The Europe collection will follow afterwards.
Aside from having an incredibly fun name to say out loud (“Sutton Hoooooo!”), the Anglo-Saxon finds from Sutton Hoo in Suffolk are incredibly important. Never before had there been quite such a spectacular display of Britain’s ancient history, and even though some of the items on display are replicas, it gives a fascinating insight into how the country looked in 300AD – 1100AD.
The star is the extraordinary helmet, which was badly damaged on discovery, but which has been reconstructed by conservators. Fans of The Last Kingdom will recognise the style and distinctive shape, as well as being impressed by how delicate the decoration was. The same goes for golden items such as the belt buckle with its beautiful interlocking knots.
Head back down the stairs into the Great Court; go into the large gallery (Room 24) on the opposite side of the building to the main entrance, then take the door on the right-hand side.
After the more subdued shades of the ancient collections, the Americas section is a riot of colour. The first gallery contains items from the native peoples of the United States and Canada, and they’re wonderful – from a shirt owned by Red Crow to Canadian masks, to full ceremonial dress, it has some truly fascinating stuff.
Head through into the second gallery to see the items from Mexico. This gallery has a lovely, atmospheric feel – unlike the previous room, this one has a lower lighting and spotlights on objects. Given the beauty and mystery of items like the limestone reliefs and the famous double-headed serpent, the lighting feels entirely appropriate!
Go back through the Americas section into Room 24; go down the staircase near the entrance.
I generally find that a lot of visitors miss the Africa collection, which is a real shame – it’s a hidden gem! It’s nicely self-contained in a basement room, and is another collection which explodes with colour thanks to the textile displays.
But it’s completely worth visiting just for the Benin Bronzes, discovered at a palace in modern-day Nigeria. The British Museum currently holds 200 of them, each one a record of a record of a king, The quality and workmanship of the bronzes is outstanding, and you can get wonderfully close-up to them. The detail really is stunning!
British Museum Tips: Ending the day
Well, you should be experiencing some museum burnout by now. So that’s why I advise stopping here, because otherwise everything becomes a bit of a blur. And that doesn’t do justice to the collections, or the people who have carefully curated them.
So what I advise now is to go to the rather excellent gift shop, and alongside the cuddly Egyptian toy cats and Rosetta Stone nail files which you will undoubtedly grab, get yourself a copy of the British Museum guide, which is available in a number of languages – you’ll see them on a big stand just outside the main shop. Aside from being a really nice souvenir of your day, it’s brilliant for seeing the bits that you missed – and more importantly – for organizing another trip. The British Museum is too good to devote just one day to; use the guide to pinpoint exactly what else you’d like to see, and mark them for another day.
Seeing the highlights on your first trip is brilliant; expand on it for your second trip. You won’t regret it! Happy museuming!
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