A vast and wondrous place, with collections from Ancient Greece & Egypt that are second to none
The British Museum (or BM, as it is commonly referred to) is one of the finest in the world. Founded in 1753, its origins lie in the collection of curios belonging to Hans Sloane, a wealthy London doctor, which he sold to the government for the princely sum of £20,000.
Boasting over 70 galleries, with approximately 50,000 exhibits on display at any one time, it’s no exaggeration to say that you could probably visit the British Museum every day for a year and still not manage to absorb and assimilate all its treasures.
It’s a vast and fascinating place, ranged over three floors, easy to get lost in due to a system of gallery numbering that can be quite confusing, but also user-friendly, in that the individual rooms are beautifully laid out and the labeling of the objects clear and concise.
Where do you start?
One way to explore the British Museum is to begin in the middle and go nowhere in particular – in other words, simply to browse, wandering through the galleries at random, gazing around in wonder and amazement at the riches on offer, soaking up the atmosphere. This in itself is pleasurable.
If like me, however, you prefer to approach things systematically, trying to put some order into your ramblings can be daunting.
For those visitors with limited time, the Museum has helpfully put together two ‘highlights’ lists – one for those with an hour to spare, the other taking three hours.
Alternatively, you can rent a Multimedia Guide (available in 10 languages), which will take you on a guided tour of over 200 objects.
If, on the other hand, your interests are more specialized, and you would prefer to focus on one or two specific areas, consider taking one of the excellent eyeOpener tours. These are free and last 30-40 minutes. Led by volunteer guides, they’re a great way of throwing light on the stories behind the exhibits, thus bringing them to life.
British Museum Building
But before you get started on the actual galleries, take a moment to appreciate the edifice itself.
The current building was designed by Robert Smirke in the Greek Revival style popular at the time, and took shape gradually over a 30-year period, beginning in 1820. The imposing main entrance on Great Russell Street, complete with Ionic colonnade, portico, and pediment frieze, simply oozes grandeur.
On entering, you find yourself in the Great Court with its glass-and-steel curved roof designed by Norman Foster. At its center is the Round Reading Room, where Karl Marx reputedly penned ‘Das Kapital’. These days, it’s being used to house temporary exhibitions, so, unfortunately, you’ll have to cough up the entrance fee if you want to see inside.