It’s no surprise that you could easily spend the whole day in The British Museum and still have thousands of artefacts left to explore. Founded in 1753, the British Museum is one of London’s most popular museums, thanks to its stunning architecture, awe-inspiring exhibitions and remarkable collection of over 8 million artefacts that span more than 2 million years of human history. From paintings and sculptures to mummies, jewellery, architectural design and more, the museum also boasts some of the world’s most famous historical objects. If you’re stuck on where to begin or only have an hour or two to spare at the British Museum, we’ve got you covered with some of the best (and most important) things to see at The British Museum that you won’t want to miss.
While at a first glance this stone slab may not look like much, it was the key to unlocking the secret of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and is easily the most visited exhibit in the museum. Carved with ancient Greek, hieroglyphics and demotic Egyptian, it was discovered by French soldiers while on a Napoleonic expedition in 1799 and later passed into the hands of the British at the beginning of the 1800s.
The British museum is home to many amazingly preserved mummies, but the mummy of a Chantress of Amun named Katebet is its most impressive. Wrapped in linen and bearing a striking golden mask with her likeness, the exhibit dates all the way back to 1300BC and is a real testament to the longstanding power of mummification.
In Assyria, lion hunting was a mark of kingly prowess and the many Assyrian alabaster panels in the museum tell the tale of King Ashurbanipal’s exploits. Discovered in 1853 by Assyrian archaeologist Homuzd Rassam while on a British digging expedition, the stunning depictions seem almost realistic. While they may be an animal activist’s walking nightmare, there’s no denying the raw power of every carving.
These gorgeous sculptures have long been at the centre of controversy since they were first taken by Lord Elgin from the original Parthenon in Greece in the early 1800s, built to honour the goddess Athena. Regardless of the drama, the collection of intricate marbles catalysed a fascination with classical Greece in Europe and were later bought by the British Museum in 1816 to the Greek government’s dismay.
How about a game of chess? While you can’t actually play with this set, the Lewis Chessmen are a collection of chess pieces carved from mainly walrus ivory and whale teeth dating back to 1150-1200AD. They depict real kings, queens, bishops and further chess characters and were found in Scotland off the Isle of Lewis in 1831, which was formerly part of the Kingdom of Norway. They are thought to belong to a merchant travelling between Dublin and Norway.
Steering away from Britain altogether to shores on the other side of the world, this Japanese warrior armour still cuts an imposing figure today with its terrifying mask and helmet. Harkening back to the Edo period, this armour forged by Unkai Mitsunao is unique because a number of its pieces come from different times with a 16th century bulletproof breastplate and elaborate neck and leg pieces from the 18th century.
A legacy of a lost tradition, this massive statue named Hoa Hakananai’a (which is believed to mean ‘lost or hidden friend’) is one of the moai of Easter Island – a sculpture built to honour sacred ancestors. Brought to Britain by Commodore Richard Ashmore Powell while on a surveillance expedition to Easter Island in 1868, the basalt statue also features carvings of birds and rings on its back, commanding the attention of those that pass by.
This red granite statue was one of many commissions by King Amenhotep III and weighs an incredible 3600 kilograms, which is even more impressive given that it’s only a fraction of the original statue. Discovered in the Temple of Mut and acquired by British archaeologist Henry Salt in a Cairo warehouse, the face has been believed to have been recarved following Amenhotep III’s reign to reflect the features of the new king Rameses II.
These delicate Persian relics were crafted by master gold and silversmiths in fourth and fifth century BC and they remain just as impressive to this day. The British Museum holds one of the most important collections of Achaemenid gold and features a stunning Oxus horse and chariot sculpture, amongst many other works.
A coveted remnant of Anglo-Saxon England, this helmet is only one of four intact helmets from the period and was discovered at one of Britain’s most important archaeological sites – the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Believed to have been part of a king or rich noble’s collection, restoring the helmet to its current glory was an arduous task after it had shattered, but was later reconstructed to reveal its imposing mask and distinctive shape.