The British Museum has always been one of the most visited museums in the world, but — as with many big museums — it can be overwhelming, so we’ve put together a guide on the highlights. Today, the British Museum collection is home to around eight million objects, with about 1% on public display. You might not think one percent is much, but it’s still around 80,000 items!
Hopefully, our guide for what to see at the British Museum will help you pick out some of the most interesting and exciting objects from what’s on offer from British history.
It’s important to say that there is no “right way” to visit the British Museum. It all depends on your interests, your energy levels, and the time you have available.
If you want to maximise your time whilst seeing the highlights of the British Museum, check out our British museum guided tour to tap into the experience and expertise of our Blue Badge Guides.
Before we jump into our guide, it’s probably worth asking how the museum became the institution that it is today.
Well, it all started with one man, Hans Sloan. A man of many trades, he was a doctor, a naturalist, and a collector. He managed to gather over eighty thousand objects, mostly coins, maps, and manuscripts. Sloan realised that his house was no longer a suitable home for so many items, so he bequeathed the collection to the nation.
This was on two conditions:
- That his heirs receive payment of £20,000, and
- That the collection remains accessible to the public free of charge.
This was agreed and, through an act of Parliament, the British Museum was opened in 1753 on Great Russell Street. Today, the British Museum collection is divided into several galleries that reflect cultures from around the world.
What to See at the British Museum: The Top Highlights
1. Egyptian Gallery
Ground floor, Room 4, Upper floor 61-64
The Egyptian Galleries have much to offer from Ancient Egypt, with the ground floor being full of large monuments. The first and probably the most famous object is the Rosetta Stone. Make sure you get close to the glass case so you can examine the fascinating details of three identical scripts in two languages.
The 3 scripts are hieroglyphics (Ancient Egyptian Language), Demotic (a simpler version of hieroglyphics, also Ancient Egyptian), and finally Ancient Greek.
It was a huge breakthrough when Jean Francois Champollion managed to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics by comparing them to the Ancient Greek script. The rosetta stone itself was discovered by French soldiers during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt.
Not far from the Rosetta Stone is a monumental statue of Rameses II, which gives us an idea of what the pharaoh looked like. It also gives us an insight into his ego. Rameses II was known to erect statues of himself all over his land, just to remind the ancient Egyptian civilization who was in charge!
Upper floor, Rooms 61 – 64
Ancient Egyptian Mummies
Here you can find a collection of both human mummies and animal mummies.
Did you know the Egyptians were known for mummifying animals? This was usually for one of 2 reasons: either as offerings to the gods or to provide the animals with an afterlife. You’ll find cats, crocodiles, snakes, fish, monkeys, and much more on display.
Human mummification was only common practice among Royalty, nobility, and the wealthy, primarily because the whole process was very expensive. There are several mummies on display, along with many sarcophagi, which are beautifully decorated with coloured images and hieroglyphics.
Prior to the lengthy and expensive process of mummification, the Egyptians relied on the hot and dry climate to preserve the dead. The bodies were simply placed in a shallow grave and covered with sand and left to dry.
You can examine how this worked when looking at the human mummy in room 64. This man was previously referred to as “Ginger” or “Gebelein man” you can still see traces of his ginger hair, his nails, and his teeth.
For anybody interested in the human body, there is an interactive screen showing you different layers of the body from the skin to the bones.
2. Assyrian Gallery
Ground floor, Room 10
The British Museum has some impressive artefacts from Assyria, Mesopotamia. When entering the exhibition you are greeted by two winged bulls of Korshabad, who once stood guard over an ancient city ruled by the last great Assyrian king.
Royal Game of Ur
If we peer in between the legs of the great winged bulls we can see a carving that resembles a board game, it is exactly that, a game for those who were bored! A Game of Ur was a royal game, which became a popular board game in ancient Assyria.
The game was played on a 10×10 square grid with 25 black and white pieces. The objective of the game was to capture all of your opponent’s pieces or surround them. It is thought that the guards who were stood under this great state carved the grid so they could play to pass the time.
Assyrian Lion hunt reliefs
The ancient Assyrians considered hunting lions the sport of kings, and this is best exemplified by king Ashurbanipal. He commissioned these sculptures for his palace at Nineveh which depicted him releasing wild cats from their cages before they are chased into nets or killed in pursuit – scenes full of tension as well as realism!
3. Parthenon Gallery
Ground floor, Room 18a, 18b, 18
This room transports you to ancient Greek civilization, where you find yourself surrounded by artefacts from the famous Parthenon in Athens. What started as a temple was turned into a Christian church and also a Muslim mosque.
The Parthenon was later badly damaged during a gun powder explosion. The subsequent removal of the statues and frieze from Athens, by Lord Elgin (British Ambassador), is still today surrounded by controversy. Other parts of the Parthenon Sculptures can be seen in the Acropolis Museum in the Ancient City of Athens.
The Goddess Athena
The Parthenon was a simple rectangular structure dedicated to the Greek Goddess Athena. It was built in the 5th Century BC and was beautifully decorated, with the frieze and statues in the pediment. Out of the original structure, the British Museum displays about 75 meters of the frieze, together with 17 statues from the pediment and 15 metopes.
Looking closely at the frieze, you can spot the detailed depictions of animals, like horses and cattle, together with humans and gods all celebrating the goddess Athena’s birthday. The stories that go together with the statues are fascinating, and we love to share them during our British Museum Highlights Tour. These statues also heavily influenced Western art, literature, and culture.
4. Living and Dying Gallery
Ground floor, Room 24
This gallery deals with life and death and how different cultures deal with staying healthy. Our favourite display is the large glass case in the middle of the room. On closer inspection you’ll recognise many pills and medicines; the display shows how much an average British person will consume during their life!
Easter Island Statues
The next most obvious object is a Moai, which originally stood in the Orongo stone village. The statue was surrounded by its companions, all stood with their backs to the sea, watching over the island and its inhabitants.
Gifted to the museum by Queen Victoria, after being presented to her by a Naval explorer, the presence of the statue again causes controversy. The indigenous people of Easter Island claim that the statue was plundered during colonial times and it should be returned as it forms part of their heritage.
Many museums counter this argument by explaining that the presence of such artefacts in museums not only ensures their preservation but also makes them accessible to more people. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, we’d recommend you make the most of easy access to these famous objects from the ancient world.
5. Mexican Gallery
Ground floor, Room 27
This gallery represents the two main cultures, Maya and Aztec, that once occupied the area we now know as Mexico. The gallery is filled with sculptures, mosaics, and ceramics from ancient Mexico, but your eyes will be immediately drawn to a glass case that contains several turquoise figurines.
The Double Headed Serpent
The most famous of these figurines is a double-headed serpent, made from cedar wood and richly decorated with turquoise, coral, and shell. This item is believed to have been ceremonial, it would’ve been worn around the neck as a chest ornament during religious ceremonies.
Serpents symbolised rebirth and fertility; in Aztec culture, serpents were also sacred. One of the main Aztec gods, Quetzalcoatl, was represented by a serpent in art.
The serpent is surrounded by two masks, which are also made from cedar wood and decorated with turquoise and shell. The mask with the large eyes is the God Quetzalcoatl, with the eyebrows taking the shape of two rattles from serpents.
The second mask represents the God of fire, Xiuhtecuhtli, usually depicted by a butterfly. If you look carefully, the cheeks on the mask do indeed represent the wings of a butterfly.
6. Europe and Britain Gallery
Upper floor, Room 49 and Room 41
Frequently, when we refer to ancient civilisations, we are in awe of how much they accomplished and how artistic they were. Britain and Europe are often overlooked in comparison, but the European continent has much to offer, even if the artefacts are slightly more “modern” than those from the old world.
A great example is the Roman Empire, which at one point stretched all the way to the British Isles. There are various artefacts found across the country linked with the Romans, including jewellery, weapons, tiles, and much more.
The Mildenhall treasure is a prime example of how skilled and artistic the Romans were in the 4th century AD. The treasure consists of about 34 individual pieces, including silver bowls, spoons, and a great dish. The details on the great dish show different Roman Gods, such as Bacchus and Neptune, accompanied by other mythological creatures.
The artefacts were unearthed during WW2 and declared a treasure trove by the British Museum in 1946.
Sutton Hoo Treasure
Another fascinating find occurred in 1939 in Suffolk, when amateur archaeologist Basil Brown uncovered the famous Sutton Hoo treasure.
Under a large mound of earth, he discovered a ship containing many other pieces, including coins, parts of armour, weapons, and more. The Sutton Hoo Ship burial is believed to be the final resting place of Raedwald, an Anglo Saxon King. He died in 624, his body is thought to have been dissolved by the acidic soil.
This treasure helps us understand more about the history of Anglo Saxon England. The helmet and the sword on display are the highlights of the display, however, the case is full of other items from the burial.
The Sutton Hoo treasure was brought to light again in 2021 when a new film called “The Dig” was released. The film follows the struggle of the archaeologist Basil Brown, not only with the excavation itself but also his relationship with the British Museum.
Museum representatives took over the dig after the discovery of the treasure and Basil’s name was nearly forgotten. He received posthumous credit for his brilliant work relatively recently.
7. Enlightenment Gallery
Ground floor, Room 1
Our final gallery in this British Museum highlights guide takes you back in time, to the 18th century to be precise. It was an age of enlightenment, an era when the British Empire gained wealth mostly from its colonies.
Many scholars tried to learn about human history through various ancient objects. A European perspective affected most of these views, so some ideas are being redeveloped in current times.
This gallery also shows the original organisation of the British Museum when it first opened. The contents were mainly books, many from the King George III library, combined with the original collection of Hans Sloan.
The British Museum and British Library were originally one institution, however, the Library has since moved and occupies a different location. Read more about Brtish Library in our list of free things to do in London.
Speaking of the founder himself, if you’d like to see the man who inspired this great collection, his bust is on display in this gallery.
Other Exhibits to Highlight at the British Museum
We said earlier that your own exploration of the museum is limited only by your interests and the energy and time you have available. So if you’re still eager to see more, the following list of pieces form a good example of some more spectacular exhibits beyond the traditional British Museum Highlights:
Mausoleum at Halikarnassos – Room 21.
Built for King Maussollos and his wife after their reign in Ancient Greece, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World.
Portland Vase – Room 70.
One of the best-preserved Roman vases which serves as inspiration for current glassmakers.
Lewis Chessmen – Room 40.
Small Norsemen chess pieces carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth.
Oxus Treasure – Room 52.
Discovered on the Oxus river, more than 180 items, the Chariot sculpture is our favourite.
Tree of Life – Room 25.
One of the most modern artefacts, made from decommissioned weapons used in the civil war in Mozambique.
Figure of Shiva Nataraja – Room 33.
Four-armed figure of Shiva known as “Lord of Cosmic Dance”.
Figure of Buddha – Room 33.
Figure of seated Budha preaching
Chinese Ming Banknote – Room 68.
An example of early Chinese currency with a stark warning prohibiting counterfeiting!
Samurai armour and helmet – Room 93.
Samurai Armour with a distinctive shape from the Edo period of Japan.
The British Museum works with several other significant museums around the world, so artefacts are sometimes part of a temporary exhibition on loan or removed from display for restoration.
Also, as we’ve alluded to several times in this guide, world culture is constantly changing and museums have to make sure their collection reflects these current views.
So our advice is to visit soon and, if possible, visit frequently. The collection is truly amazing and completely free of charge to visit, thanks to an initiative by the British Government. Find out more about visiting the British Museum.
British Museum Highlights Tour
The museum’s collection can be overwhelming and trying to get the most out of your visit might be stressful.
Leave the worrying to us and book our British Museum Highlights guided tour.
Our expert Blue Badge Guide will make sure you see the best of the museum on your visit. Even though we propose a loose itinerary, it’s your time, so just ask your guide if there are specific items or favourite things that you’d like to see!
What’s on at The British Museum
Embark on a captivating journey through history at the iconic British Museum, where temporary exhibits offer a limited-time opportunity to witness extraordinary treasures from around the world. Immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring beauty of these fleeting exhibitions, unveiling captivating artefacts and untold stories that will leave a lasting impression long after your visit.
Luxury and Power – Persia to Greece
Exhibition 4 May – 13 Aug 2023
Uncover the captivating clash between Greek soldiers and the opulent Persian king’s tent in an exhibition that goes beyond ancient Greek triumph. Delve into the complex relationship between luxury and politics, exploring how the Persian Achaemenid court used precious objects as symbols of authority. From Athens’ creative adaptations to Alexander the Great’s fusion of styles, witness the breathtaking craftsmanship of gold, silver, and glass artifacts. These treasures shaped the political landscape of Europe and Asia, leaving a lasting legacy on our perception of luxury today. Don’t miss this captivating journey through power, beauty, and interconnected ancient cultures.
China’s hidden century
Exhibition 18 May – 8 Oct 2023
Experience a groundbreaking exhibition revealing the resilience and innovation of 19th-century China. Amidst civil uprisings, foreign wars, and the end of dynastic rule, explore a period of remarkable creativity driven by political, cultural, and technological change. Through exquisite objects and research by the British Museum and London University, uncover the lives of remarkable individuals and the textures of 19th-century Chinese society. Witness the emergence of new art forms and technological advancements that transformed the era. This extraordinary exhibition opens a new chapter in understanding late imperial China.