The British Museum: A London Visitors’ Guide

The British Museum is one of the most popular attractions in the United Kingdom. Millions of people visit each year, and it’s full of interesting exhibits that cover everything from ancient to modern history.

If you’re thinking of going to the British Museum while you’re in London, here’s what you need to know to get the most from your visit.


Purpose Of The British Museum

Since it was first founded, the British Museum’s main goal has been to provide the public with access to exhibits that span over two million years. It also aims to provide a place where people from different cultures can learn from each other.

The museum hosts many classes on world history for both children and adults, designed to provide an interesting and educational experience for visitors of all ages.


History

british museum in london
By Ham (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The British Parliament established the British Museum in 1753 and it opened to the public in 1759. At first, it focused on the scientist Sir Hans Sloane’s 71,000 object collection. This included books, natural specimens, and antiquities like coins and medals.

In the nineteenth century, the museum continued to expand and grow. It gained its most famous acquisition, the Rosetta Stone, in 1802. Around that time, the Parthenon sculptures were also added to the collection.

Soon, the number of artefacts grew too big for the small space, and the museum began to expand. In 1823, the quadrangle building was constructed – it still houses the museum today.

The Reading Room was built in 1857 as the museum started to focus increasingly on education. More public lectures were provided and the displays improved.


Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, the British Museum expanded its public services, adding new guide lecturers and more educational services. A beautiful new court was built: the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court.

This two-acre court is the largest covered public space in Europe. Still in use today, it houses an information desk, a reading room, and an educational center.

Today, the British Museum continues to add new acquisitions to its collection. The museum’s visitor numbers have grown exponentially since it was founded. When the museum first opened in the eighteenth century, it averaged 5,000 visitors a year. Now, the number is over six million.

With the exception of World War II, the British Museum has remained open ever since it was first founded.


Top Exhibits and Galleries

british museum's rosetta stone
The Rosetta Stone – the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics   © Hans Hillewaert / via Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum is huge and features tons of fascinating exhibits and galleries. When you get to the museum, spend a few minutes studying a map of the museum to give you an idea of where everything is located.

Start your visit by viewing the famous Rosetta Stone. This iconic exhibit is located in Room 4 in the Egyptian gallery, which is right near the entrance of the museum. While you’re there, be sure to check out the Mummy of Katabet, a mummy with an elaborate headdress and real rings.

You also won’t want to miss the Ancient Greece and Rome Galleries. These galleries are on the ground floor, and they contain ancient sculptures, vases, exhibits on Alexander the Great, and more.

The most famous sculptures in this gallery are the stunning Elgin marble Parthenon sculptures. You’ll find these sculptures in Room 18.

If you’re interested in European history, head to the British Museum’s European galleries. There, you’ll see objects dating back to Medieval Europe.

One of the most famous exhibits in this part of the museum is the Lewis Chessman set. These 82 chess pieces date back to the twelfth century, and they’re made out of walrus ivory and whale tooth.

The European rooms also feature antique clocks and watches, Italian Renaissance-inspired vases, and twentieth century Art Nouveau pieces.

You can also learn more about Middle Eastern history in the Middle Eastern galleries. These galleries include pieces from Ancient Iran, Ancient South Arabia, and Mesopotamia.

Some of the highlights of these galleries are a crushed helmet and ancient royal board game from Ur, and a well-preserved Assyrian sculpture relief depicting lion hunting.

These are just a few of the many exhibits and galleries in the British Museum. Some of the other highlights include the largest collection of Chinese ceramics outside China in Room 95, Mayan and Aztec items in Room 27, and ancient objects from the Korean peninsula in Room 67.


Location and Visiting Details

The British Museum: A London Visitors’ Guide 1
The Reading Room       The original uploader was Dmgerman at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The British Museum is free to enter, and it’s open from 10:00am to 5:30pm. On Fridays, the museum stays open until 8:30pm. The information desk in the Great Court opens an hour before the museum at 9:00am.

The museum gets very crowded, especially during the peak tourist season of April to October. To avoid the crowds, try to arrive at the museum right when it opens at 10:00am. This way, you’ll get some time alone in the galleries before the crowds arrive.

The British Museum also hosts tours in different galleries throughout the day. These tours last about thirty to forty minutes, and they’ll give you an in-depth look at some of the museum’s fascinating galleries.

The museum also hosts free lunchtime gallery talks and Friday evening spotlight tours. You can find all of the tour times here.

How To Get To The British Museum

The museum is located on Great Russell Street in the Bloomsbury district of London. It’s very easy to get there on the London Underground. Simply take the Central or Northern line to Tottenham Court Road.

From there, it’s just a five minute walk. There are also many buses that stop near the British Museum. Check out the full list of transportation options here.


The British Museum is a highlight of any trip to London. No matter what part of history you’re interested in, you’re sure to find exhibits that you’ll love in the museum.

When you’re putting together your London itinerary, be sure to schedule a day there.


The British Museum: A London Visitors’ Guide 2
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