20 amazing British Museum highlights and facts

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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.

British Museum from NE 2
Image from Wikimedia Commons
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 know what the must see British Museum attractions are. I have also included a few interesting facts and tips for visiting one of my favourite London museums.

Top 10 British Museum highlights

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1. Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Location:  Room 4 Ground Floor

Appearing on all British Museum top 10 lists, The Rosetta Stone should be your first stop when visiting the museum.

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.

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2. Parthenon Marbles

Parthenon marbles Elgin marbles freize

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.

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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.

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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.

In response 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.

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3. Sutton Hoo mask and ship burial collection

Sutton Hoo helmet
Image courtesy the British Museum

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.

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4. Egyptian mummies

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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.

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5. Enlightenment Gallery

Enlightenment Gallery British Museum

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.

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6. The Standard of Ur and artefacts from Mesopotamia

Standard of Ur - War
Image from Wikimedia Commons

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.

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7. Renaissance and Medieval objects

holy thorn reliquary
Image courtesy the British Museum

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.

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8. Artefacts from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus or Tomb of Mausolus

lion at british museum

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.

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9. Greeks and Romans

roman statues missing noses at british musem

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 things to see at the British Museum. You will also learn why many of the statues are missing their noses!

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10. Great Hall

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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.

An architectural wonder, I believe the Great Hall is among the top highlights of the British Museum.

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British Museum facts

ancient greek statues at british museum

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

Do you have favourite facts about British Museum I could include in this list?

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Visit the British Museum

British Museum location

Visiting the British Museum is easy.

The 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

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British Museum 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

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Eating and shopping at the museum

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.

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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.

Click here for our guide to the best things to do in London with kids

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British Museum guided tour and activities

The museum offers several free guided tour options including daily 30-40 minute talks on sections of the collection. I have taken several tours of the ancient British galleries and learnt so much from the experience.

The tour guides are volunteers trained to give you a fascinating overview of the British Museum must see attractions.

Taking tours has become a mini passion of mine. If you have the time I highly recommend taking one of the museum.

Audio guides are available in 10 languages for £6 [2017]

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These are some of my favourite British Museum highlights and facts. How many have you seen?

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38 thoughts on “20 amazing British Museum highlights and facts

  1. ashleydaleyphotography says:

    What a great post! I love all the little facts at the end. We loved our visit to the British Museum, but only had a couple of hours to visit (and had little ones with), so we missed a few things on your list that I definitely want to check out next time (like the Sutton Hoo artifacts)!

  2. Katy says:

    Thanks Ashley. We have nothing like this in Australia and I keep going back to discover new areas. As the kids get a bit older the museum has so many great activities to keep them occupied. On our last visit our two were encouraged to build a Greek temple out of blocks in front of the Nereid Monument. It was kind of surreal but they loved it

  3. Cindy G says:

    Great post! The British Museum is one of my favorite museums, although in recent years I’ve only stopped by to see a special exhibition and haven’t really explored the museum in a while. I hope to change that soon! Thanks for hosting #FarawayFiles

  4. Wandermust mummy says:

    Great list! The Benin bronzes also fit in with the Parthenon marbles display! There is a debate with Stephen fry and Tristram hunt online about the arguments for and against returning trhrbmarbles if you are interested #farawayfiles

  5. California Globetrotter says:

    I am NOT a museum person! I totally run through them as fast as I can or avoid them almost completely. I cant believe you wilt after 1 1/2 hrs! I LOVE history but looking back on old artifacts too often bores me. I’d rather go out and see it! Unfortunately I married a man who loves to read every.single.plaque! Save me! #FarawayFiles

  6. Trish @ Mum's Gone To says:

    What an excellent guide to the museum, Katy – the highlights plus lots of super little extra facts. We visited the site of Sutton Hoo a few years ago in Suffolk and it was very interesting although I had to hot foot down to London to see the real mask and not just the replica they had there!
    I’m also a big fan of the Great Hall; an incredibly light, vast space.

    • Katy says:

      Thanks Trish. I did the reverse Sutton Hoo trip after seeing the mask in the museum! We are so lucky to be so close by to the museum arent we?

  7. Allison says:

    I love museums but I am like you- I can only take so long in a museum before I can’t read anymore. My husband is the exact opposite so we’re usually waiting on him to get his fill of a place before we can move on to something else. The British Museum sounds so amazing and we’ll definitely be paying it a visit when we’re in London. I love how many of the museums in London have free admission. That is so different from Chicago where they charge an arm and a leg. #FarawayFiles

  8. Clare Thomson says:

    We all love the British Museum in our family. You could visit every day for a year and still find something new to discover every time. The backpacks for children are a wonderful way to get them feeling artefacts and becoming history detectives in specific areas of the museum. I absolutely agree that with a museum of this size it’s best to limit yourself to a few areas each time to avoid museum overload. We love the Ancient Egyptian and Roman Britain areas and my favourite exhibit is the beautiful Egyptian Gayer-Anderson cat – I like to think it comes alive at night and prowls around the museum. Great post for #FarawayFiles

  9. fifi + hop says:

    Amazing, comprehensive post, Katy! Thanks for breaking it all down. I agree – although I love museums they can be overwhelming, especially the big ones, so this is a great list of highlights. Pinning for later! Also – interesting fact about 1% of collection on display. #farawayfiles

  10. youngandundecided says:

    I am a sucker for a good museum! I quite often have museum days here in Glasgow as some of the exhibits are always changing. I’ve never been to the British Museum but it’s definitely on my list! The main hall is amazing!

  11. Natalie says:

    Wow, I went to the British Museum almost 15 years ago, but was young and didn’t really appreciate it, now I feel like I need to go back and really see everything! Awesome

  12. Katy says:

    I thought the museums in Glasgow were fantastic too! Where I am from in Australia we have a couple of great museums but I guess the British Museum is like the godfather/mother of museums and I love the main hall too

  13. Hilary says:

    I love the British Museum and have been a number of times! My older son is especially interested in the Egyptian section and I’m afraid we bored my little guy to tears lingering over everything. It makes sense to pick a few must-see items and concentrate on them, doesn’t it! I’d never read about the dispute between the museum and the Greek Government. Fascinating! #farawayfiles

    • Katy says:

      Oh yes Hilary, it’s quite the controversy but all very proper in a British kind of way as they continue to collaborate with the Greek historians on the research

  14. Juliette | Snorkels To Snow says:

    Awesome guide – I would love to see the Egyptian exhibition. Museums are wonderful places, especially if you can do some kind of art history study before hand to help understand what you’re viewing. I have a list of museums and galleries I need to get through, all inspired from my high school art history studies! #farawayfiles

  15. WanderMum says:

    You’ve made we want to revisit the British Museum in the very near future!! I’ve been a couple of times but don’t think I’ve seen many on your list. A few years ago that had an exhibition of some of the Terracotta Army. It was mind boggling brilliant!! Thanks for hosting #farawayfiles

    • Katy says:

      I would have loved to have seen the Terracotta Army exhibition Elizabeth. I read about it and it sounded amazing! The British Museum is such an incredible resource to have on our doorstep!

  16. BootsNotRoots says:

    Wow, Katy! I have a super tough time spending more than about 30 minutes in a museum. I, like California Globetrotter, can’t believe you can spend an entire 1.5 hours! HAHAH. 🙂 Beautiful post as always! #farawayfiles

  17. Ali May says:

    I loved visiting the British Museum when I lived in London, and every time I come back to the UK. You would be crazy to try and hit all the sections in one day, so your tip for doing areas in more bit sized 1.5-2 hour stints makes much more sense (for one’s sanity). The crowds can also get a bit overwhelming, especially if the weather is not so great outside. It is a truly remarkable building and it always baffles me how well they have kept the exhibits from ancient civilisations. A great post to include on your blog and in #FarawayFiles.

  18. Ahila says:

    I enjoy museums but in small doses, as I get overwhelmed after an hour or two. So, I tend to focus on one gallery at a time so that I can appreciate whatever I do see better. For my visit to the British museum therefore, I focused on the Rosetta stone (as this was something that I had to see) and the Egyptian sculpture gallery and the nearby Assyrian gallery.

  19. Kat says:

    I remembered my visit to the British Museum in 2008 – I think I was there from 10am till 3pm (including lunch) and then rushed to the airport to catch my flight back to KL in the evening. Because of the walking and standing for too long in the museum, my feet ached so badly 🙁 But it helped me to sleep on the flight hahah…My favourite exhibits are the Egytian mummies! #farawayfiles

  20. CatherineRose || La Vie En C-Rose says:

    Wow, I can’t believe that only 1% of their collection is on display! Where do they keep it all?! The Great Hall is spectacular. I think that was the most memorable part of my visit when I went a few years ago! It must be so nice to be able to explore bit by bit at your leisure, especially with kids. When I’m short on time or there’s a high entrance fee for a museum, I feel pressure to see it all, and after awhile I get tired and need a snack!

  21. Bumble Bee Mum says:

    This museum looks like it requires quite a few visits to explore. It sounds really overwhelming! I love that they have activity packs for kids. #FarawayFiles

  22. MummyTravels says:

    I do love this museum – I hadn’t realised it was the biggest in the world although I know I haven’t seen anywhere near all of it despite multiple visits. And almost always to the Egyptian galleries.

    • Katy says:

      Luckily you live in London and it’s right there on your doorstep. It’s such an incredible resource and understandably the most visited attraction in London

  23. Nell (Pigeon Pair and Me) says:

    My favourite sections are the Greek and Romans, too. It’s ages since I’ve been. I can’t quite remember why so many are missing noses, but I have a feeling it’s for a grisly reason…..thanks for linking up with #CulturedKids!

  24. Groove Is In The Heart | Birgit says:

    This is such a great post! I love the British Museum and still remember my many visits there while I lived in London… an absolute treasure trove! It also helps if you go on a guided tour with someone who can explain all the history and point out some highlights. I did that on my very first visit there 🙂

  25. The Napoli Alert says:

    Very helpful, we are going in a few months. I think there are also children’s “treasure hunts” there

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