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.
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. 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 of the British Museum have much to offer, with the ground floor being full of large monuments. The first, and probably the most popular, item 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), Demotic (a simpler version of hieroglyphics, also Ancient Egyptian), and finally Ancient Greek. It was a huge breakthrough when Jean Francois Champollion decoded the hieroglyphic script by comparing it to the Ancient Greek script.
Not far from the Rosetta Stone is a huge 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 everyone who was in charge!
Upper floor, Rooms 61 – 64
Here you can find a collection of mummies, both human and animal. 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. Parthenon Gallery
Ground floor, Room 18a, 18b, 18
This room transports you to ancient Greece, 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 is still today surrounded by controversy.
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.
3. 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!
The next most obvious object is an Easter Island statue, 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 spectacular items.
4. 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 most famous of these figurines is a double-headed serpent, made from cedar wood and 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.
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.
5. 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.
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. It is believed to be a burial site, possibly of Raedwald, King of East Anglia, who died in 624; the body is thought to have been dissolved by the acidic soil.
This treasure helps us understand more about Anglo Saxon history. 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.
6. 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 the history of human cultures 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. 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, take a look through our list of other spectacular exhibits at the British Museum:
- The Winged Bull of Khorsabad and The Lion Hunt – Room 10
- Mausoleum at Halikarnassos – Room 21
- Portland Vase – Room 70
- Lewis Chessmen – Room 40
- Oxus Treasure – Room 52
- Tree of Life – Room 25
- Figure of Shiva Nataraja – Room 33
- Figure of Buddha – Room 33
- Chinese Ming Banknote – Room 68
- Samurai armour and helmet – Room 93
The British Museum works with several other significant museums around the world, so artefacts are sometimes 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. Find out more about visiting the British Museum.
The museum 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 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 you’d like to see!