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—6.8 million people a year. Put on your walking shoes because it’s huge.
Holdings are grouped in numbered rooms by geography, with an emphasis on the Greek and Roman Empires, Europe, and Britain. Dominating the center of 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. 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.”
It’s impossible to choose the most priceless item in a welter of pricelessness, but if you have only a few hours, orient yourself in the Great Court. 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-minute Lunchtime Talks with guest curators Tues–Fri at 1:15pm; 20-minute Spotlight tours about major holdings on Friday evenings; and Hands On, which allow you to touch some things. The website also has some suggested “object trails” for what to look for if you have limited time—useful because staff rarely knows about anything except crowd control. Consider renting a hand-held audio/video tablet (£5, both adult and kids’ versions) that spotlights 200 of the best objects. From 10:30am to 3pm on weekends, you can also borrow free kids’ backpacks that include discovery maps. Maps range from £2 to £6 depending on the level of guiding information you want (for a free one, print “floor plans” from the website).
But don’t miss:
* 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 but were defaced (literally—the faces were hacked off) by invading vandals (not literally—they were Persian) in the 500s. They 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 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. It now adorns everything from handbags to socks in the gift shops; free museums have to profit somehow.
* The grisly array of Egyptian Mummies in rooms 62, 63, and 64 petrify living children and on your visit, they’ll probably be thronged as usual. In addition to the wizened, raisinlike 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 also 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 Butcher was cheated of his fortune was chronicled by writer Roald Dahl. (Yes, pillage is something of a hidden theme in this place.)
* Room 70, on the upper floor, holds three remarkable holdings: the bronze head of Roman Emperor Augustus, found in the Sudan and lifelike to an unsettling degree (it still has its painted eyeballs, as most statues of the time did); The Portland Vase, a black, cameo-glass jug that’s very difficult to make even today; and beside that, The Warren Cup, a First Century silver chalice graphically depicting homosexual sex in relief. The Warren Cup’s acquisition for £1.8 million caused some juvenile titters; the jibes are made more amusing by the fact visitors have to bend over to inspect its indecorous decorations.