Set in scholarly Bloomsbury, this immense museum grew out of a private collection of manuscripts purchased in 1753 with the proceeds of a lottery. It grew and grew, fed by legacies, discoveries, and purchases, until it became one of the most comprehensive collections of art and artifacts in the world. It's impossible to take in this museum in a day.
The museum is divided basically into the national collections of antiquities; prints and drawings; coins, medals, and banknotes; and ethnography. Even on a cursory first visit, be sure to see the Asian collections (the finest assembly of Islamic pottery outside the Islamic world), the Chinese porcelain, the Indian sculpture, and the prehistoric and Romano-British collections. Special treasures you might want to seek out on your first visit include the Rosetta Stone, in the Egyptian Room, the discovery of which led to the deciphering of hieroglyphics; the Parthenon Sculptures, a series of pediments, metopes, and friezes from the Parthenon in Athens, in the Duveen Gallery; and the legendary Black Obelisk, dating from around 860 B.C., in the Nimrud Gallery. Other treasures include the contents of Egyptian royal tombs (including mummies); fabulous arrays of 2,000-year-old jewelry, cosmetics, weapons, furniture, and tools; Babylonian astronomical instruments; and winged lion statues (in the Assyrian Transept) that guarded Ashurnasirpal's palace at Nimrud. The exhibits change throughout the year, so if your heart is set on seeing a specific treasure, call to make sure it's on display.
Insider's Tip: If you're a first-time visitor, you will, of course, want to concentrate on some of the fabled treasures previewed above. But what we do is duck into the British Museum several times on our visits to London, even if we have only an hour or two, to see the less heralded but equally fascinating exhibits. We recommend wandering rooms 33 and 34, and 91 to 94, to take in the glory of the Orient, covering Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The Chinese collection is particularly strong. Sculpture from India is as fine as anything at the Victoria and Albert. The Mexican Gallery in room 33C traces that country's art from the 2nd millennium B.C. to the 16th century A.D. A gallery for the North American collection is also nearby. Another section of the museum is devoted to the Sainsbury African Galleries, one of the finest collections of African art and artifacts in the world, featuring changing displays selected from more than 200,000 objects. Finally, the Money Gallery in room 68, traces the story of (what else?) money. You'll learn that around 2000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, grain was used as currency, and that printed money came into being in the 10th century in China.
The museum's inner courtyard is now canopied by a lightweight, transparent roof, transforming the area into a covered square that houses a Centre for Education, exhibition space, bookshops, and restaurants. The center of the Great Court features the Round Reading Room, which is famous as the place where Karl Marx hung out while writing Das Kapital.
Finally, a warning: Watch your wallets when you're standing in crowds, particularly in front of the Rosetta Stone. The museum is free and tends to attract a few grab-happy drifters.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Very Highly Recommended 2010