A Walking Tour of the British Museum

British Museum

TripSavvy / Gautier Houba

There is so much to see at the British Museum in London that it would easily take a week to get around to everything. These 14 highlights can be seen in a visit of a couple of hours.

The British Museum celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2003. It's always worth visiting, and it's always free to visit. Check the British Museum website for the most up-to-date information before your visit.

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The Great Court

Great Court of the British Museum
Getty Images/Kenneth C. Zirkel

Queen Elizabeth II opened the Great Court in December 2000. This enormous inner courtyard of the British Museum has a spectacular glass roof housing the world-famous Reading Room, which serves as the home of major temporary exhibitions.

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Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone on display at the British Museum
Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives/Waring Abbott

The Rosetta Stone carries an inscription in different languages that helped decipher the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script. It is the only surviving fragment of a larger stone slab that recorded a decree on March 27, 196 B.C.

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Easter Island Statue

A basalt statue known as Hoa Hakananai'a (probably "stolen" or "hidden friend") is in Room 24 on the main floor. This statue, representing an ancestral figure, was possibly first displayed outdoors. It was later moved into a stone house at Orongo, the center of a Birdman cult. Low-relief designs carved on the back are associated with this cult. The statue seems to have been used in both contexts to express ideas about leadership and authority.

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Nereid Monument

Nereid Monument in the British Museum

On the main floor in Room 17, you'll see the Nereid Monument, which is the largest and finest of the Lykian tombs found at Xanthos in southwest Turkey. The Nereid Monument is actually a reconstruction of one of the sides of the monument.

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Assyrian Winged Bulls

Assyrian human-headed winged statue
Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives/Waring Abbott

The main floor's Room 10 displays huge Assyrian Winged Bulls, which are from the city and palace of Khorsabad, built for the Assyrian king Sargon II (721 to 705 B.C.). These winged bulls were guardians against misfortune.

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Greek Vases

A Greek vase from 540 BC
Getty Images/Peter Macdiarmid

These vases, found on the main floor in Rooms 13 and 15,  were made in Athens circa 550 to 530 B.C. The larger one depicts the battle between Herakles and Kyknos.

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Tomb of Ur Helmet

The city of Ur lay in south Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait), close to the ancient shoreline of the Persian Gulf. Excavations by Sir Leonard Wooley from 1927 to 1932 uncovered a unique cemetery with hundreds of graves, many belonging in the Early Dynastic period. The British Museum received a quarter-share of the finds. This electrotype copy of the gold helmet of Meskalamdug from about 2600 B.C. is housed on the upper floor in Room 56.

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Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Sculptures

Parthenon sculptures of Ancient Greece.
Getty Images/Corbis News

In Room 18 on the main floor, you'll see what are known as the Elgin Marbles. These are actually Parthenon Sculptures from the Acropolis in Athens. The Parthenon on the Acropolis at Athens was built between 447 and 438 B.C. as a temple to the Greek goddess Athena, but it had many uses throughout its history. In 1687, when Athens was under siege, the Parthenon was used as a gunpowder store, and the roof was blown off. The building lay in ruins for many years, and by 1800 only 50 percent of the original sculptural decoration remained.

Between 1801 and 1805, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, to which Athens had belonged for 350 years, removed half of the sculptures from the ruins and brought them back to Britain. Lord Elgin's actions preserved the sculptures from further weathering. In 1816, the British Museum acquired the sculptures, and they have been on display ever since.

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Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Sculptures - East Frieze

A frieze which forms part of the 'Elgin Marbles'
Getty Images/Graham Barclay

Another highlight can be found in Room 18 on the main floor. It's the spectacular Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Sculptures East Frieze. 

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Egyptian Mummies

Members of the public view a mummified child
Getty Images/Oli Scarff

The British Museum has the largest and most comprehensive collection of ancient Egyptian materials outside Cairo.  A mummy is a preserved Egyptian body. The preservation of the body was an essential part of the Egyptian funerary belief and practice because death and the afterlife held particular significance and meaning for the ancient Egyptians.

In Rooms 63 and 63 on the upper floor of the British Museum, you can see associated objects like coffins, mummies, funerary masks, portraits, and other items designed to be buried with the deceased.

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Portland Vase

Portland Vase detail
Wikimedia Commons/Carole Raddato

The Portland Vase is an ancient Roman glass vase, probably made in the early part of the first century. It's small, about 11 inches high, and is made of cameo glass. It was found in the late 16th century, but the meaning of its scenes, and precisely when and how it was made are still debated. It is named after the 3rd Duke of Portland, who lent the vase to the British Museum circa 1800. It was subsequently permanently deposited in the British Museum in 1810 by the 4th Duke of Portland for safe-keeping; in 1945 the museum bought the vase from the 7th Duke of Portland. It is on display in Room 70 on the upper floor.

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Antique Cash Register

Room 69 on the upper floor of the British Museum is the Money Room, where you can see an amazing array of coins and notes as well as the materials to make them and the tools and equipment involved in their manufacture.

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Sutton Hoo Helmet

Sutton Hoo Treasure Displayed At The British Museum
Getty Images/Oli Scarff

This helmet is extremely rare and dates to the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain in the early seventh century. It was found at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk and comes from a ship burial. The iron helmet is covered with decorative panels of tinned bronze and reflects the warrior status of the dead king as well as all sorts of weapons used in Anglo-Saxon England. It's on the upper floor in Room 41.

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Lewis Chessmen

Lewis Chessmen
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

The Lewis Chessmen are made of walrus ivory and are probably Scandinavian. They date from about 1150 to 1200. A group of 93 pieces was found on the Isle of Lewis, the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, in 1831. Eleven are held by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. A selection of the remainder is in the British Museum in Room 42 on the upper floor.

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