5 must sees at the British Museum

Friday, 5 April 2024

Two million years of human history packed into one enormous iconic British museum. Take a peek into the most mind-blowing and monumental societies in Earth’s recorded human history through the surviving artefacts and objects discovered around the globe.

Everyone remembers their first time at the British Museum. Love, death, art, rituals and rulers are all themes you can explore in the 80,000 objects on display . This is just scratching the surface of the 8 million collected by the museum since its opening in 1759. If you’re wondering how long to spend at the British Museum, using our guide, two to three hours is a good amount of time.

For a smooth sailing trip, book in advance online , but you can just turn up on the day. Tickets are free and it usually takes around five minutes to get inside. Avoid the crowds by visiting on a weekday and after 15:00. Sundays are quietest on weekends. Doors are open daily at 10:00; the last entry is an hour before closing at 17:00 or 20:30 on Fridays.

While you’re there, you can hear from experts at talks, explore special exhibitions or follow pre-made trails - there’s everything from a one-hour whirlwind tour to an LGBTQ histories trail . As well as exhibitions and artefacts spread across the three floors, there’s a cloakroom, shop , information desks, eateries and disability facilities .

Catch a train to London Euston and then a short hop on the underground and step back in time at this world-renowned museum.

Discover the British Museum, famed for its rich cultural and historical artefacts. We’ve pulled together 5 must-sees when you visit.

1. Unravelling the secrets of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian civilisation was recorded using hieroglyphic inscriptions 3,000 years ago. This language was lost and no one could read it, until the Rosetta Stone was discovered by a group of soldiers in 1799. By comparing identical scripts written in three types of writing, for the first time, we could learn about the beliefs, traditions and history of Ancient Egypt.

Although the stone itself was monumental to learning about Ancient Egypt, what it actually says isn’t particularly interesting or important. The text was written to affirm the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation - after he took the throne following the suspicious deaths of his parents.

Where is the Rosetta Stone? Ancient Egypt on the ground floor in room 4 - Egyptian sculpture gallery .

Keep an eye out for: Ceramic jar with inscription in black ink which has the oldest Egyptian text when writing was first ‘invented’ in 3250 BC.

2. Inside Ancient Greek temples of the gods

Mineral baths, frequent parties and minimal hard work – the wealthy Greeks in Ancient Athens mastered the laid-back, leisurely lifestyle. It was a time of revolutionary philosophy, newfound democracy and the craft of world-famous artwork, which can be admired today in the British Museum.

If you’ve heard of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, classical Greek sculptor Pheidias who masterminded Zeus at Olympia, also created Temple-relief . It was one of his fifty designs in the Parthenon temple – a sacred building celebrating the goddess of victory, Athena. Carved in marble is an impression of an honorary festival for Athena’s birthday. Phedias was believed to have seen the image of the gods, which he recreated in his art.

Where is Temple-relief?
Ancient Greece and Rome on the ground floor in room 18 - Greece: Parthenon gallery .

Keep an eye out for: Sculpture of Ilissos from the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, 438-432 BC.

3. The mystery of Easter Island

What will you see when you stare into the eyes of Hoa Hakananai’a ? For some it's an expression of power and peace and others a stern and menacing frown. Its name translates to ‘lost, hidden, or stolen friend’. You can look, but touching these sacred statues filled with mystery, magic and spirituality is illegal - in their homeland, anyway.

Before its voyage to England in 1869, Hoa Hakananai’a was found peeping its head from grassy green hills on the palm tree-filled Easter Island. It was one of around a thousand of these curious figures found there, known as moai .

The Rapa Nui people who lived on the island believed their chiefs were descendants of the gods who would become divine again after death. So, they carved the moai as temporary containers for the spirits of their ancestors and positioned them with their backs to the sea to keep watch over the island.

Where is Hoa Hakananai'a?
Living and Dying on the ground floor in room 24 - The Wellcome Trust Gallery

Keep an eye out for: Pukara , a collaborative painting by artists of Spinifex people.

4. Journeying into the afterlife

Mummies aren’t just a thing of movies; in the British Museum you can see these preserved human beings up close. Removing internal organs, treating the body and then wrapping it in bandages was a ceremonial process to help the dead into the afterlife. Tayesmutengebtiu , or Tamut, was a priest’s daughter who underwent this process 3,000 years ago. Today you can see her colourfully decorated mummy case in the museum.

Fascinating technology used by scientists produced a detailed 3D image of Tamut beneath the bandages. She was revealed to be in her late 40s or 50s and on the verge of a heart attack or stroke. She had a tattoo on her inner thigh, short hair and probably wore a wig. Inscriptions on her mummy case revealed she was a singer in ancient Thebes in 900 BC and was mummified with glamorous accessories like small amulets, stola and pendants.

Where is the mummy case of Tayesmutengebtiu?
Ancient Egypt on the upper floor in room 62 - Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies , The Rosie Walker Galleries.

Keep an eye out for: Book of the Dead of Hunefer, from Thebes, Egypt, about 1290 BC.

5. A Jewel of West Africa

Imagine being a housing construction worker and stumbling across a 600-year-old artefact which unravelled insights of the powerful rulers and kingdoms of medieval West Africa. This is how the Brass Head of an Ooni of Ife , among 15 others, was discovered in Nigeria in 1938. Together, these pieces are seen as among the most remarkable accomplishments of African art and culture. No one knows why this realistic head was created.

Ife, Nigeria, remains a place of great importance for culture, spirituality and traditions. Yoruba-speaking peoples of today still have an Ooni - who they recognise as a descendant of the original creator gods. Beliefs around the creator gods disregard the Big Bang Theory. Instead, their ancient mythology explains that the universe is made from two elements - the sky above and the water below.

Where is the Brass Head of an Ooni of Ife?
Africa on the lower floor in room 25 - The Sainsbury Galleries.

Keep an eye out for: Tree of Life which was made by artists from Mozambique in 2004.

Handy tip: When you travel with London Northwestern Railway, you can get exclusive 2FOR1 entry to some of London’s top attractions including Madame Tussauds .

Buy your Family Travelcard here. You can purchase your ticket via the London Northwestern Railway app.