Last Updated on 8. May 2018 by Simone Kunisch
The British Museum is one of the biggest museums in the world and one of the most visited places in London. It’s also one of my favourite places to visit.
We owe this wonderful place to a single inquisitive man and his passion for collecting: Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Not only was he a physician and naturalist but also a passionate collector of natural artefacts, books, Chinese art and North-American ethnography. He wanted his collection to be maintained after his death and therefore, he bequeathed it to King George II who then establised the British Museum. If you want to know how the founder of the museum looked like – find his bust in the “Enlightenment Gallery“ (room 1 on ground floor).
The Museum as place of knowledge and education
On January 15th 1759 the collection of Sir Sloane was officically opened as British Museum and has grown ever since. The museum attracts more and more visitors each year who all want to gaze at the enormous number of artefacts (approx. 8 million pieces) the museum has to offer. Understandably, only a small amount of pieces is on display at a time.
The original intention that the museum should host all the knowledge around art and science, can be found in the pediment above the main entrance. You can see several sculptures in “The Progress of Civilisation” who demonstrate the development of human kind. The former uneducated human being (on the left) gains basic knowledge about farming and animals. He develops in the areas of architecture, geometry, music and poetry. On the right you will find the educated human. All which is needed to educate – according to the standards of that time – was shown in the first exhibitions inside the museum.
The collection as base for other museums in London
Today, we still find enormous numbers of artefacts in the museum despite the fact that several areas had to be transferred to other museums due to missing space. Since the 1880s natural history pieces can be found in the “Natural History Museum” in South Kensington. The huge collection of books and manuscripts was outsourced to the “British Library” in 1998, pictures and portraits can be found in the “National Gallery”, the “National Portrait Gallery” or at “Tate Britain”.
Architecture of the building
The building from 1823 consists of 4 wings and was build by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1876) in “Greek Revival style”. Completed in 1852 there were not only galleries for the exhibitions but also flats for those working in the museum. The “Greek Revival style” can be recognized in the building itself but also in the 44 massive columns on the south side (the main entrance) and in the pediment (above the main entrance).
The main entrance with its columns and the pediment were decorated in such an impressive way, as both wanted to attract visitors and to make them curious about the “wondrous” objects inside the museum. Western and Eastern wing are less eye-catching, as “only” the employers lived here.
The Great Court – the millennium project
In 2000 the “Queen Elizabeth II Great Court” opened as millenium project of the museum. It is the largest covered square in Europe, was designed by Norman Foster and I am overwhelmed by the huge glass and steel construction every time I visit. It’s just so beautiful! Inside the square you find a separate round building in which most of the special exhibitions take place. There is also a café on top which serves very nice afternoon tea.
The collection of the British Museum
Approx. 8 million artefacts spread on 3 floors. On ground floor there is my personal highlight: the Egyptian gallery with its huge sculptures. It’s always my first stop and I have to visit every time I go to the museum. Standing in front of the big statues and walking past the other items (coffins, statues..) always leaves me speechless and deeply impressed.
Be close to the Rosetta stone
In the Egyptian gallery you will also find the Rosetta stone. It was a huge sensation when it was discovered in 1799 during the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. Found in Rosette in the Nile delta the piece is part of a bigger stele (which had never been found though). It weights over 760 kg and shows the same text in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, in Demotic script and in Ancient Greek. With this it was possible for the first time ever to translate Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Today, the Rosetta stone is covered behind glass and it can get quite crowded. If you want to enjoy the stone, expect some waiting time. But I promise, it’s worth waiting for a clear view onto this unique piece of history. Don’t miss it!
Also on ground floor you will find the galleries for Asia, Middle East, America (North-America and Mexico), Ancient Greece and Rome.
The Ancient Egpytian culture continues on first floor. You will see real mummies and they are very popular! So either be here early or expect other people to squeeze around…Also the collections from the Middle East, Ancient Greece, Rome and Asia continue here. In addititon to that, learn all about the history in Europe. From the Middle Ages until our modern times, find it all in 8 rooms.
On lower ground there are the galleries for Africa, Ancient Greece and Rome continue there as well.
You might have realised by now that the collection is huge and that it’s pretty hard to decide what to see first. I have visited the museum so many times but there are still areas which I haven’t seen yet. I would like to recommend to concentrate on few personal highlights for your first visit and to keep the rest for your next visit to London and the British Museum.
The “Enlightenment Gallery”
You will find the „Enlightenment Gallery“ (room 1 on ground floor) in the rooms of the former “King’s Library”. This is the earliest part of the museum which was completed in 1827. Originally, the books of George III were kept here but they were moved to the British Library and the space is now used for the “Enlightenment” movement in the UK. The room is filled with sculptures and busts – one of them is Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the museum.
Totally-London advice for your visit
- Start early as it will be less crowded. The Great Court opens 9 o’clock and you can have a tea, grab a plan for the museum, enjoy the Great Court and decide on what to see first before the galleries open at 10 o’clock. There are pieces, e.g. the Rosetta stone or the mummies which are very popular. Visit them early as they will be even more busy later the day..
- The special exhibitions are not for free but they are worth every penny! One of my all-time favourites has been the „Terra Cotta Army“ exhibition in 2007/2008. It had been the first time that the warriors were on display outside China and I can still remember the feeling I had when I finally stood in front of the warriors – goose bumps all over!
I was also a big fan of the 2014 „Vikings life and legend“ display which showed a nearly 40 m long original warship (or at least what was still available from it). In the same year the British Museum showed „Ancient lives, new discoveries“ , an experience in which 8 mummies from Egypt and Sudan were digitally unwrapped.
In 2016 I visited „Sunken cities“ and learned about two egyptian cities which had been buried under the sea for ages. Parts of the cities, e.g. statues have been rescued and were on display. They looked like new… absolutely stunning! Obviously not every special exhibition is interesting for everyone. But you can inform yourself online and decide afterwards.
Design your visit
After all you have read you want to visit the museum? But you are a bit overwhelmed by the size of the museum and the number of artefacts? Here are some good ways to explore the museum:
- Join an eyeOpener Tour: for free, duration 30-40 Minuten, concentration on a special gallery or area in the museum. Meeting point is inside the Great Court where you will also learn about the topic of the tour.
- Gallery Talks are 45 minutes long lectures, for free, Tuesday to Saturday at 13:15, held by a curator
- Get a Multimedia Guides (there are special ones for kids) which will guide you through the museum, will explain items in more detail and – if you have the kids version – will offer interactive games.
Useful stuff about the British Museum
Address: The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
How to get there: Tottenham Court Road (Central line, the red one) and Holborn (Piccadilly Line, the blue one) are both a 10 minutes walk away
Opening times: The galleries are open daily from 10:00 – 17:30, Fridays until 20:30. The Great Court with cafés and info area opens at 9:00.
Entrance fees: The museum is free of charge but donations are welcome. Special exhibitions: costs vary.
Link to homepage: here
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