The tube had just gone on strike. Literally, as in that hour. Snarled with traffic, London’s streets looked hopeless for a taxi ride. It was only a mile on foot, according to Google Maps, to see the world’s greatest repository of archaeological artifacts under one roof. Normally, that wouldn’t be a challenge – but my 82-year-old future father-in-law had no intention of missing out on it.
The World, in Antiquities
It took us an hour on foot, pushing upstream against the massive crowds that poured down London’s sidewalks, but when we stepped inside these hallowed halls, all thought of the outside world was erased. Jim was determined to see the Rosetta Stone, so after picking up a map, we made a beeline to it.
Founded in 1753, the British Museum was the first national public museum in the world, established to educate “all studious and curious persons.” Its foundation is the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, who bequeathed more than 71,000 books, specimens, and antiquities to the nation. An act of Parliament established the museum.
It’s the archaeologists of the British Empire, however, that made the museum what it is today. Backed by the British Museum, they discovered many world treasures that we learned about in our history classes. And they brought them home. That hasn’t always sat well with other countries, despite acquisition agreements signed centuries ago. For instance, Greece. Having been to the Parthenon and the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, my main reason for visiting the British Museum was to see the Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1805 and put on display in the British Museum in 1817. Greece wants them back. The British Museum says no.
They make a good argument. Wars and intentional vandalism of cultural artifacts worldwide means that if some of these priceless pieces of human history weren’t here in the heart of London, they wouldn’t exist today. Especially in the Middle East, I thought, as we walked through extensive galleries of Assyrian art that I had no idea existed, but had been unearthed by archaeologists working for the British Museum. I remembered murals I’d seen in churches in a remote corner of Greece where the apostles’ faces had been desecrated, chiseled out by the Ottomans. Had the British Museum not acquired antiquities from Egypt, Assyria, Mesopotamia, and so much of the Middle East centuries ago, they might not exist at all today.
Make a Plan
The British Museum is enormous. You’ll need to work out a rough plan as to what’s most important to you once you get there, and live with the fact you can’t see it all in one visit. Which is perfectly fine, since museum overload eventually sets in.
Since we arrived with just three hours to sample the treasures of the British Museum, the three of us looked at the map and chose our areas of greatest interest: Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, and Roman Britain. As it turned out, this was still more than we could cover.
We spent a lot of time just standing around objects in awe, unable to broaden our view to the greater collection surrounding them. That happens when you see priceless pieces of human history for the first time.
One of the best ways to plan a visit is around a guided tour of a collection, or civilization, that interests you. There are ongoing free 30-40 minute tours all day long, as well as free 20-minute Friday evening tours that focus on a single culture. If you don’t want to leave London without seeing the highlights of the museum, special 90-minute tours are offered on weekends for a fee.
Absorb your Highlights
Clouds of visitors orbited the Rosetta Stone, eager for a look at the the key that enabled understanding of Egypt’s hieroglyphs. It is one of more than 4,000 highlights that the British Museum calls attention to throughout its immense collection, and by the crush of humanity in the gallery, likely the one that is visited the most.
As we walked through the Egyptian sculpture galleries, we saw art students sitting on benches, sketching these ancient treasures. I was thankful to see the many benches, as walking that mile took a serious toll on Jim’s knees. He was able to sit and rest now and again. But like us, he was caught up in the grandeur of it all. A rabbit’s warren of Assyrian sculpted reliefs led to the Greek galleries, and deep within the museum, the Parthenon Sculptures.
In the Mesopotamia galleries are artifacts from the beginning of modern civilization, more than 4,000 years old and yet so delicately wrought that you know art was an important part of their culture.
We found the Egyptian mummies while looking for more of Mesopotamia. Occupying two galleries on the upper floor, the collection of coffins, mummies, and funerary objects evokes both fascination and discomfort. What you see here is very unlike what you’ll see in other exhibits. There are mummy cases adorned with elaborate artwork including a rendering of the deceased’s face, cat mummies, and paintings from a tomb-chapel dating from 1350 BC.
Since our trip through the United Kingdom was just getting underway and we knew we’d be learning about Roman culture in the British Isles, we made a special point of visiting the Roman Britian galleries. An unexpected bonus was the Sutton Hoo gallery, showcasing exquisite artifacts removed from a royal Anglo-Saxon ship burial in Suffolk. Our final stop was the clock and watch gallery, not far from the elevator, and a nice change of pace for Jim and John, who share a love for antique clocks.
After three hours of immersion in antiquities, it was enough for one afternoon. I achieved my goal of finally seeing the Elgin Marbles, and finding the Egyptian mummies was a plus. We started the long walk back to Marble Arch, knowing we’d barely scratched the surface at the British Museum. There there would be more to explore on the next visit.
Visiting The British Museum
The British Museum is an imposing structure along Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG. While entry to the British Museum is indeed free, they do their best in trying to convince you to make a suggested donation before you enter. The museum is open 10-5:30 daily, with extended hours on Friday evenings. A snack bar and gift shop are on the ground floor, with the busiest restrooms located beneath them. If your party plans to split up, set a time and place to meet. The chances of casually finding each other in this massive space are rather slim. Remember that anyone and everyone can wander into the museum, and does. Don’t leave personal belongings unattended, and use your street smarts as you traverse spaces both cavernous and small.
Check their website in advance for the availability of a lecture during your visit. If you’d like professional commentary at your own pace, rent a multimedia guide, which can be found in the Great Court.