It’s almost impossible to contain all the British Museum Highlights in just one blog post.
In our recent video about What to See in the British Museum, I repeatedly said, “I could spend weeks here,” and I wasn’t kidding!
But what if you only have a few hours to explore what’s in the British Museum?
We’ve put together a highlights guide that will change how you explore this fascinating institution. Think of this as your “British Museum Must See” guide.
One of my favourite ways to explore what is inside the British Museum is with a private tour and we at Free Tours by Foot offer a public tour of the museum.
The right British Museum tour guide can really make the exhibits come alive and give you a deeper understanding of what you are seeing.
It’s also a great idea to watch our British Museum Highlights Video to get a feel for the route before you arrive.
And we have a post to help you plan your visit and learn what parts of the museum are free and what parts have costs.
What to See Inside the British Museum If You Have Just a Few Hours
Our first top tip is to enter via the rear entrance at Montague Place. Then, head up the stairs and into Room 33: China and South Asia.
The Tara Sculpture – Room 33
Walk to the back of the gallery and admire the stunning solid bronze statue of the Mahayana Buddhist deity Tara.
She was originally cast in 8th century Sri Lanka and then coated in gold, and we think the only reason she survived the millennia, we think, is because she was buried.
And thank goodness for that – she’s stunning.
Her right hand is in a shape (mudra) that symbolises giving, and her left hand likely held a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhism.
Finally, you’ll see an empty hole in her crown, which likely held a giant ruby, for which Sri Lanka is famous.
Next, it’s time to enter the Wellcome Trust Gallery of Living and Dying, Room 15.
Hoa Hakananai'a – Room 15
Enter this innovative gallery and admire the different cases – but we’re here to see Hoa Hakananai'a.
This monolith comes from the isolated Polynesian island of Rapa Nui.
You might recognise Rapa Nui by its more common name – Easter Island, so named because the first Dutch explorers landed there on Easter Sunday in 1722.
They, and Spanish and British explorers after them, encountered people living amongst the toppled moai – the name for this type of sculpture.
The moai date to the 12th to 16th centuries and represent specific ancestors. That means they’re not just sculptures – to the people of Rapa Nui, they are living beings.
As a result, this is one of the most heavily contested objects in the museum, and as the information panel details, the British Museum is in talks with Rapa Nui delegates for a resolution.
The Ife Head – Room 25
Next, head downstairs to the Africa Galleries to see the Ife Head.
This is one of 18 heads excavated in Ife, Nigeria, in 1938 by a team led by German archaeologist Leo Frobenius.
The bust has a peaceful, beatific expression, decorated with ritual scarification, which would have been considered exceptionally beautiful.
His crown signifies him as someone powerful.
His crown is topped with a rosette and a plume, now is slightly bent to one side, and it would have been painted red and black.
Though Frobenius couldn’t believe that the head was from Nigeria and tried to come up with outlandish theories about Ancient Greek origins.
We now know it dates to the 14th or 15th century and was likely made by an individual artist in a single workshop.
Totem Poles - The Great Court
Head back upstairs and be prepared for a truly marvellous site - the Great Court, which is the largest covered public square in Europe.
In 2000, architect Norman Foster, famous for Footbridge, Gherkin, and London City Hall, designed this impressive glass and steel roof and it was renamed The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court.
In the Centre of the Great Court, you can see the famous Reading Room, which is sadly closed to the public.
This was once a world-famous private library that welcomed Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and even Vladimir Lenin!
Check out the Coast Salish house poles, sometimes called story poles or totem poles, from the West Coast of North America.
One of these poles is from the Nisga’a people, while the other is from the Haida people of Haida Gwaii, formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands and now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
They’re carved from cedar wood, which is a natural insect and water repellent, to mark significant occasions and events, such as anniversaries.
Carving totem poles was illegal in Canada from the mid-19th century until 1951, because Christian missionaries and government forces saw them as barriers to First Nations assimilation and colonization.
When European explorers arrived in these coastal regions, they often took the poles they saw lying on the ground, assuming they were unwanted.
They also bartered and bought some of the poles, which is the case of the Haida pole here, purchased in 1903 by Charles Newcombe from Chief Wiah.
The Enlightenment Gallery – Room 1
The Enlightenment Gallery gives us a glimpse into how the museum would have looked when it was first founded.
It’s housed in the oldest room in the Museum – which was originally designed for King George III's Library.
In the centre of the Gallery, you’ll find a bust of Sir Hans Sloane, often called “the founder” of The British Museum. He was an Irish botanist, physician, and collector who traversed the globe collecting objects and plant specimens.
His wife, Elizabeth Langley Rose, was the heiress to sugar plantations that were worked by enslaved people, and the profits from this slave labour funded Sloane’s immense collections.
The Rosetta Stone
A few steps away, you’ll be in front of a replica of the Rosetta Stone.
Feel free to touch it and get up close – you won’t get a chance to do this with the real one a bit later! After all, the actual Rosetta Stone is the British Museum’s most popular exhibit.
The real Rosetta Stone has been in the British Museum for over 200 years and has always been one of the museum’s most popular objects.
You’ll visit the real stone later, but you can see the details up close on this replica, usually without the crowds.
In 1799, some of Napoleon’s men discovered the slab being used to hold up the wall of a fort in the village of El Rashid, known to the French as Rosetta.
They were shocked to see three languages on the tablet, Demotic, Ancient Greek, and Egyptian Hieroglyphs, each seeming to say the same thing.
The British acquired the stone in the Treaty of Alexandria and whisked it away to London. Scholars began to translate the hieroglyphs and found out that they detailed an ancient tax break given under King Ptolemy V.
At this time in history, only the priests could understand hieroglyphs – the average person either spoke and read Demotic or Greek.
Within a few hundred years more, not even the priests were using hieroglyphs – and the language was lost.
That’s why the Rosetta Stone was such an incredible discovery. Without this stone slab, we may never have learned how to understand the treasures and wonders of Ancient Egypt.
The Lewis Chessmen - Room 40
Head upstairs to The Mediaeval Europe Gallery, Room 40. It’s home to some of the world’s most fascinating medieval treasures, including The Lewis Chessmen.
These curious little game pieces were discovered in a church in the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, in 1831, but they are much, much older.
In fact, they date to the 12th century, or perhaps even earlier.
Most of the pieces are made from walrus ivory, while a few were carved from whale’s teeth.
When found, the hoard contained 93 items in total - 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen, and one belt buckle. Eighty-two pieces are here at the British Museum, and 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
By the way – if they look familiar, you may recognise them from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Sutton Hoo – Room 41
Room 41 helps us step back in time to an even earlier Europe, to the centuries AD 300–1100.
They used to be called “The Dark Ages,” but now we know that an immense amount of art, craftsmanship, global trade, and storytelling occurred during this period.
You’re here to see one exhibit in particular - the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. This is arguably the most important archaeological discovery in British history.
You’ll step back in time to 1939 when a woman called Edith Pretty decided to have one of the mounds on her property excavated.
She hired amateur archaeologist Basil Brown to do the dig.
He would soon find massive ship’s rivets, which would lead him to the most intact early medieval grave in Europe – a 27-meter ship (90 feet) fully loaded with rich treasures and buried beneath the earth.
Clearly, this grave belonged to someone important – this is likely the final resting place of Anglo-Saxon king Raedwald, who ruled East Anglia.
However, no body was discovered. It was likely dissolved by the acidic soil, along with all of the wood, cloth, and bone.
Make sure you spend some time admiring the iconic Sutton hoo helmet.
The Royal Game of Ur – Room 56
Stop quickly in Room 56, home to objects from Mesopotamia, spanning 4500 years between 6000 BCE and 1500 BCE.
You’ll see another important Mesopotamian object at the very end of your tour that connects to something in this case here. So, think of this as a bit of a preview.
Check out the Royal Game of Ur, one of the oldest board games in the world, originating around 4,600 years ago.
We know the rules because a Babylonian astronomer wrote them on cuneiform in 177 BC, and we’ve been able to decipher the rules from this.
Two players would race from one end to the other, and the central squares were used for fortune-telling.
Egyptian Galleries - Rooms 62 and 63
Wondering what to see in the British Museum, but you only have time for one room?
Head directly to the Egyptian Galleries, which explore death and the afterlife.
Death and the afterlife held deep importance and meaning for ancient Egyptians – after all, we all know about their love of magic, ritual, and mummification.
So much so that they mummified their cats!
While there are many awe-inspiring mummies in these rooms, head to see the cat and kitten mummies. Mummifying cats allowed them to join their owners in the afterlife.
They were also offerings to different gods, and they were also considered incarnations of specific gods, such as the cat god Bastet, who had the head of a cat and the body of a woman.
In other cases, animals such as ducks were mummified to serve as food in the afterlife.
Egyptian Sculpture Gallery – Room 4
Enter the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, one of the most impressive rooms in the British Museum.
It’s filled with sculptures that span three thousand years of fascinating history.
Amongst the different monoliths and broken busts, you’ll find one of the most famous museum objects in the world – The Rosetta Stone. This time it’s the real one!
Next, walk to the massive bust of Ramesses II and think of these famous lines of poetry:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Percy Shelley wrote this poem in 1818 in his despair over Europeans removing precious antiquities from Egypt.
Ramses II, who ruled from 1279 to 1213 BCE, was one of Egypt's greatest pharaohs, much so that nine further pharaohs took his name to try to cash in on his name and success!
This statue, called the Younger Memnon, flanked the entrance to the Ramesseum, a massive funerary complex at Luxor.
Assyrian Guards – Room 6
These human-headed, winged bulls are two of the heaviest items in the museum.
In the 8th Century BC (around 2700 years ago), these were situated at the gates entering the city of Khorsabad in ancient Assyria (what is today situated in Northern Iraq).
Khorsabad was a walled city, so people entering the city had to pass through gateways like this.
Why human-headed, winged bulls?
The Assyrian empire stretched across what is now called the Middle East. These winged bulls partly signify the strength of the empire.
The borders were busy, but there were also quieter times.
So, what did guards do when they got bored? They played “The Standard of Ur” (just like the one you saw upstairs) - look at the markings on the side of the bull on the right!
The Parthenon Sculptures – Room 18
End your “Highlights of the British Museum” Tour with the iconic Parthenon Sculptures, often called The Elgin Marbles.
Start by checking out the model of the Parthenon, a temple built on the Acropolis, in the small room on your right-hand side.
You can see exactly what the Athena Temple looked like in ancient Greece when it was built on a hill above Athens in 447 BCE.
Next, enter the main gallery, built specifically to house these sculptures, which were removed under highly contested circumstances by British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, in 1801.
He claims to have had permission from the Ottoman rulers, but the Greek government today disputes this.
Admire the friezes around the room's perimeter, and then make your way to both ends to see the pediment sculptures.
This depicts the birth of Athena, with many broken and damaged statues telling the unbelievable tale of the fully grown goddess emerging from Zeus’s forehead.