In my opinion, a trip to London is not complete without a visit to one of its many museums and galleries and arguably the best museum in the world is the British Museum. With a collection of around 8 million objects preserving human history, culture and art across almost 2 million years, the museum is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the history of humankind.
But what if you have limited time and what if, like me, you sometimes get cultural overload? Even as a culture lover, I start wilting after an hour and a half of visiting museums and the thought of 8 million objects makes me feel a bit dizzy.
As a Londoner I have the luxury of being able to go to the British Museum regularly to explore in bite sized pieces. So after many visits I decided on a few favourite exhibits that showcase the best of the museum’s collections – my British Museum top 10.
I made this list to help readers make the most of their time and included a few interesting facts and tips for visiting one of my favourite London museums.
Top 10 British Museum highlights
1. Rosetta Stone
Location: Room 4 Ground Floor
Dating from 196 BC the Rosetta Stone contains 3 languages: hieroglyphic, Greek and Demotic; and was the key to modern scholars ability to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. Before its discovery, the Ancient Egyptian language and script had not been translated since before the fall of the Roman Empire.
2. Parthenon Marbles
Location: Room 18 Ground Floor
The classical Greek sculptures on display at the British Museum were originally part of the Parthenon – a 2,500 year old temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, in Greece. They were brought to Britain by Lord Elgin in 1801 and are some of the most important archaeological finds giving us an insight into life in Ancient Greece.
Made with the guidance of the great Ancient Greek sculptor and architect Phidias, the collection includes a 75 metre long frieze showing battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs.
Controversy at the museum
Both the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon Marbles are controversial exhibits at the museum. Like many objects at the British Museum, they were removed from their place of origin during the expansion of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Requests by the Greek government to the British government to return the Parthenon sculptures to Athens have been refused on the grounds that the museum acts as a custodian for the world’s art and antiquities and is committed to their preservation and ongoing research.
Read the museum’s full statement about the removal of the Parthenon Marbles and decision not to return them to Greece here.
Major museums around the world including the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and Louvre in Paris echo this sentiment. You could argue that very few people will actually see the works on display at these museums however the British Museum in collaboration with Google is in the process of cataloguing its collection online including imagery and a virtual tour of how items are displayed. In this way, they hope millions more will enjoy a virtual visit and be inspired by the collection.
3. Sutton Hoo mask and ship burial collection
Location: Room 41 Upper Floor
Discovered in 1939, the Anglo-Saxon artefacts discovered at Sutton Hoo are perhaps the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in Britain. The Sutton Hoo collection includes this incredible and iconic ornate mask as well as hundreds of other items found well preserved over 1,500 years in 20 burial mounds.
A guided tour of the Ancient Britain section of the British Museum inspired our visit to the site of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk north of London.
4. Egyptian mummies
Location: Rooms 62-63 Upper Floor
Some of the most popular galleries at the British Museum are dedicated to Ancient Egypt. The museum has a collection of over 140 mummies and coffins of which only a small number are on display due to space and preservation restrictions. A favourite of mine is the 3,500 year old wooden coffin of pharaoh Nubkheperre Intef who ruled in Egypt’s 17th dynasty, 1600 BC
5. Enlightenment Gallery
Location: Room 1 Ground Floor
Dedicated to the 18th-century Enlightenment era, this beautiful gallery was once known as the King’s Library. It was built between 1823 and 1827 to house over 60,000 books collected by King George III. Today you can still see many of the books, though most are now housed in the British Library. The gallery now provides a useful introduction to the museum. You can see some remarkable objects and curiosities including the fossil of one of the first dinosaurs ever found – an Ichthyosaur – collected by museum founder Sir Hans Sloane.
6. The Standard of Ur and artefacts from Mesopotamia
Location: Room 55 & 56 Upper Floor
Between 8,000 and 3,500 years ago the great Mesopotamian civilisations evolved in the area we know today as Southern Iraq. During this time humans evolved build some of the first cities and create some magnificent art including The Standard of Ur. This box like object was laid with engraved shells and lapis lazuli and depicts a battle and celebratory victory banquet.
7. Renaissance and Medieval objects
Location: Room 2A Ground Floor
One of the more recent galleries, The Waddesdon Bequest is a collection of over 300 ornate objects from the Renaissance and Medieval periods left to the museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild. Many of these jewel encrusted items once belonged to the royal houses of Europe.
8. Artefacts from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus or Tomb of Mausolus
Location: Room 21 Ground Floor
Built in 350 BC the Mausoleum was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World built for King Maussollos of Karia an area now known as Bodrum in modern day Turkey. Before it was destroyed by a series of earthquakes, the structure stood 40 metres high and was decorated with sculptures and free standing statues. You can see some of these at the museum including the free standing lions that watch over the stairways.
9. Greeks and Romans
Location: Rooms 69 and 70 Upper Floors
Once you have marvelled at the grandeur and size of the Parthenon Marbles, head upstairs to discover smaller and more intricate objects from Greek, Roman and Etruscan times. I could look at some of the mosaics there for hours. One that shows a sea life scene made of tiny tiles is my favourite. You will also learn why many of the statues are missing their noses!
10. Great Hall
Stand in awe in the museum’s Great Hall. Completed in 2000, it is the largest covered square in Europe and is the hub of the museum. A glass and steel roof covers the central Reading Room (currently closed) and the building’s quadrangle.
Walk around the Great Hall and you will see a 1st century Roman equestrian statue, an Easter Island Moai and the 12 metre Kayung totem pole made by the Haida people of British Columbia, Canada.
British Museum facts
1. The oldest object in the collection is a stone chopping tool thought to be almost 2 million years old
2. Only around 1% of the museum’s collection (80,000 objects) is on display to the public
3. British street artist Banksy once tricked the museum into displaying one of his works “Early Man Goes to Market” in their Roman Britain collection
4. The museum stores information and images about 2 million objects on its online collection in partnership with Google
5. The Rosetta Stone is made of granite and weighs approximately 760 kilograms
6. During the second World War key items such as the Rosetta Stone were moved to secret locations including an underground train station for their protection
7. The British Museum is the largest in the world covering over 92,000 square metres
8. In 1972 almost 1.7 million visitors saw the temporary exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamun” making it the most successful in British history
9. No marble sculptures remain at the Parthenon in Athens. They have been removed from the site and held at the Acropolis Museum and other sites around Europe for their protection and conservation
10. Michelangelo’s only surviving full-sized cartoon Epifania is held at the British Museum
Tips for visiting the British Museum
British Museum location
The British Museum is in the Bloomsbury district of central London. Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
Nearest tube stations: Tottenham Court Road | Holborn | Russell Square
Download this handy PDF of the museum floorplan and layout to help you plan your visit
Opening hours and tickets
The British Museum hours are from 10.00–17.30 daily and until 20.30 on Fridays. Note – the museum is closed on closed 24, 25 and 26 December, 1 January and Good Friday.
British museum tickets: Free. There is no charge to enter the British Museum and view the main collection however you may need to pay to view special exhibitions and a small donation is encouraged.
Tip – Be prepared to queue to enter the museum. There are strict security measures in place. You may not bring large items of luggage to the museum.
More information on the British Museum website
Eating and shopping
There are several cafes and restaurants within the museum and outside in the courtyard. It is also acceptable to bring a picnic. I like several eateries close by including a favourite Aussie breakfast and brunch spot Lantana in Fitzrovia. Check out my guides on London’s best coffee and the city’s top budget friendly quick bites restaurants for more information.
Museum shops in London are curated brilliantly so if you are looking for a unique souvenir of your visit to London you will likely find something special in one of the several shops on site.
Information for families
We love visiting the British Museum as a family. The museum has many activities and trails to inspire children of all ages. I particularly like the activity backpacks that take kids on a fun historical journey throughout the museum.
When museum fatigue sets it there is plenty of wide open space to run around in throughout the Great Hall and child friendly options (though a little expensive) in the cafes.
Note – Children are admitted free to special exhibitions.
Learn more about the museum’s family facilities.
Activities and tours of the British Museum
The museum offers several free guided tour options including daily 30-40 minute talks on sections of the collection. I took one of the ancient British galleries and learnt so much from the passionate volunteer guide. Taking tours has become a mini passion of mine. If you have the time I highly recommend taking one.
Audio guides are available in 10 languages for £6 
These are some of my favourite British Museum highlights and facts. How many have you seen?
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