Founded in 1753 and first opened in 1759 in a converted mansion, the British Museum is as much a monument to great craftsmanship as it is to the piracy carried out by 18th- and 19th-century Englishmen who, on their trips abroad, plundered whatever goodies they could find and then told the bereft that the thievery was for their own good. Yet the exquisite taste of these English patriarchs is unquestionable, and now the British Museum may be the museum to beat all the rest. In fact, it’s the top attraction in the country—5.9 million people a year now. Put on your walking shoes because it’s not the king of museums for nothing.
Because museum staff will do nothing beyond ensuring you aren’t stealing or misbehaving (even the Info Desk just reads off the website), it’s imperative that you do advance research and learn the background of the things you see. Check the schedule of daily talks and exhibitions either online or by the pillar to the right as you enter the Great Court. These include a bevy of freebies: 15 daily Eye-Openers, focused on particular rooms; 45-min. Lunchtime Talks with guest curators (Tues–Fri 1:15pm); 20-min. Spotlight tours about major holdings on Friday evenings; and Hands On, which allow you to touch some things (11am–4pm). The website also has some suggested “object trails” for what to look for if you have limited time—useful because the staff rarely knows about anything except crowd control.
This museum is so full that it risks being relentless or dull if you don’t have context, and unfortunately, curators don’t give you much to go by. They want you to buy things instead. Books from its gift shop may help. Consider renting a handheld audio/video tablet (£7, both adult and kids’ versions) that spotlights 200 of the best objects. From 10:30am to 3pm on weekends, borrow free kids’ backpacks that include discovery trails. Maps range from £2 to £6 depending on the level of guiding information you want, and even those are paltry, so for a free and better one, print floor plans from the website.
Dominating the glass-roofed Great Court like a drum in a box, the cream-and-gold round Reading Room, completed in 1857, was once part of the British Library containing King George III’s exemplary book collection. Patrons had to apply for tickets, and they included Lenin and Karl Marx, who developed their political theories here; other habitués included Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Virginia Woolf, who wrote upon entering “one stood under the vast dome, as if one were a thought in the huge bald forehead which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names.” The Great Court Restaurant above the Reading Room serves full afternoon tea from 3pm for just £20—a bargain (reserve online or at [tel] 020/7323-8990). The Reading Room is closed to the public, but don’t miss the paneled King’s Library rooms (1827), now known as the Enlightenment Gallery and brimming with cabinets of curiosities retrieved from the ends of the Earth by the likes of Captain Cook himself.
Other holdings are grouped in numbered rooms by geography, with an emphasis on the Greek and Roman Empires, Europe, and Britain. Given the rarity and beauty of this massive collection, it feels perverse to call anything a highlight, but these are some that the museum itself names as standouts (check locations because exhibits are currently being shifted around).
TOP DON’T-MISS EXHIBITS AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM
* The museum’s most famous, and most controversial, possessions are the so-called Elgin Marbles, gingerly referred to as the Sculptures of the Parthenon (rooms 18 and 19) to disguise imperialist provenance. These slab sculptures (called friezes and Metopes), plus some life-size weathered statuary, once lined the pediment of the famous Parthenon atop Athens’ Acropolis. After being defaced (literally—the faces were hacked off) in the 500s by invading vandals (okay, not the East Germanic Vandal tribes—these guys were Persian), the sculptures suffered further indignities in a 1687 gunpowder explosion before being sawed off and carted away by Lord Elgin. They’re laid out in the gallery in the approximate position in which they appeared on the Parthenon, only facing inward so you can admire them. Greece begs ceaselessly for their return, but the British have argued that they’re better cared for in London. The smog-burnt portions left behind in Athens, despite their glossy new galleries, make a muddy issue of conservation and politics even murkier.
* Fragments of sculptures from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, one of the lost Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, loom in room 21. They’re colossal in the original sense—one horse’s head measures 2.1m (7 ft.) long.
* The pivotal Rosetta Stone (196 B.C.), in room 4, is what helped linguists crack hieroglyphics, and its importance to anthropology can’t be exaggerated. Napoleon’s soldiers found it in Egypt in 1799, but the British nabbed it in 1801. Consider it his first Waterloo. At the back of the ground floor, in room 24, find the giant Hoa Hakananai’a. It was plucked from Easter Island in 1868 and stood outside, under the portico, for nearly 80 years before being brought indoors. So much for the “we take care of things better” argument.
* The grisly array of Egyptian Mummies in rooms 62, 63, and 64 petrifies living children, and on your visit these galleries will be thronged as usual. In addition to the wizened corpses, there are painted coffins; the hair and lung of the scribe Sutimose, dating to 1100 B.C.; and scarabs galore. In room 64, check out the body from 3400 B.C., found in a fetal position without a coffin, which was preserved by dry sand. Beside it is another one, 400 years younger, that rotted to soil because it was laid to rest in a basket.
* Kids stare moon-eyed at crumpled, leather-faced Lindow Man in room 50; he was discovered, throat slit, in a Cheshire bog nearly 2,000 years after his brutal demise. Preserved down to his hair and fingernails, he looks like he could spring to life and pound the glass of his case. Nearby (room 49) is the Mildenhall Treasure, a hoard of new-looking silver Roman tableware unearthed by Gordon Butcher, a Suffolk farmer, as he plowed fields in 1942; the saga of how he was cheated of his fortune was chronicled by writer Roald Dahl. (Yes, pillage is something of an underlying theme in this place.) The Lewis Chessmen (room 40), cartoonish and made from walrus ivory, are whimsical favorites.
* The oldest known map in the world, by the Babylonians, was carved on a clay tablet in the 6th century B.C. and now resides in room 55.
* Room 70, on Level 3, contains many remarkable holdings: the bronze head of Roman Emperor Augustus, found in the Sudan and unsettlingly lifelike (it still has its eyeballs of glass and stone); the Portland Vase, a black, cameo-glass jug that would be very difficult to make even today; beside that, the historically important Warren Cup, a 1st-century silver chalice graphically depicting homosexual sex in relief; and a 3rd-century Roman crocodile-skin suit of armor.