The British Museum

14 Mar

I lovingly refer to the British Museum as “The Museum of Imperialism.”  Walking through you really do get a sense that the entire country of Great Britain simply said “Hey, we conquered the world, and look what we brought home with us!”  Whether or not that’s a good thing is an argument best saved for another time and place.*  As it stands now, however, there is perhaps no better museum in the world for appreciating just how much human beings have been able to accomplish in our time on Earth.

As a visitor, however, you’re probably not as concerned with the history of the museum and would prefer just to know how to see the most in the least amount of time.  Fair enough.  That’s what I’m going to try to do.

Probably the two biggest draws in the British Museum are the Pantheon Marbles and the Rosetta Stone.  These are conveniently located close to each other on the museum’s ground floor.  It’s a good area in which to start or finish, or you might even stop in a couple of times based on how the crowds are that particular day.  The other standout gallery in the museum is located on the Upper Floor and houses the Anglo-Saxon treasure found at Sutton Hoo.  It might not be as well-known as the Elgin Marbles (the now un-PC term for the Pantheon Marbles) or the Rosetta Stone, but it’s certainly worth visiting.

Aside from the big draws there’s one golden rule to the British Museum – do your research.  If you have an entire day to spend you can wander around with no particular plan, but if you only have a few hours it helps to prioritize what you really want to see.  Love mummies?  Really, who doesn’t?  Take your time in the Egyptian galleries on the upper floor.  Curious about Native Americans after watching some old Westerns?  Make sure you check out the rooms devoted to the Americas.  The important thing is that you take the time to look at the museum’s website before your visit and go in knowing where you want to go because otherwise, and I promise this, you will become distracted and miss out on something you really wanted to see.

Really the perfect way to see the British Museum would be to move to London and visit it at least once a week for a few hours for one, maybe two years.  Then you might be able to see everything.  That’s not including the museum’s outstanding special exhibitions or the British Library, which up until 1997 was part of the British Museum complex and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.  Even if your time in London is short, go to the British Museum.  It really is one of the greatest repositories of human achievement on Earth.

A few other tips for enjoying the British Museum –

  • Take note of when British schools are on break (The government has an excellent website for this.).  Most of the time you can’t plan around these things, but it helps to know ahead of time that the museum is going to be even more crowded than it normally is.  The last time I was there it was during the “Half-Term” break.  I felt like I couldn’t walk five feet without stepping on a child.
  • I’m always a big fan of stopping for a bite to eat or a coffee in a museum, but if you’re going to spend all day at the British Museum it might be worth it to step outside and go somewhere in the area for lunch.  Even the cafes and restaurants can get very crowded.
  • My personal recommendation for must-sees in the museum would be the European galleries.  Not only are they extremely interesting on their own, but I like the idea of learning about British history in a place called the British Museum.
  • The British Museum (like most of the major London museums) is free.  Take advantage of this fact and come back often, if you can.  It takes away the pressure of having to see everything at once, and in a place this big every visit manages to be new and interesting.
  • The museum has a special feature called “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”  Odds are you won’t have the time or inclination to hunt down all of them, but do make sure you read the labeling when you come across one of these objects.  They do a great job of putting the objects in their historical context.
  • If you’re particularly interested in one area it might be worth it to take part in one of the free tours that occur throughout the day.  They’re volunteer-led, which means the guides tend to be a bit more interesting since they’re there simply because they enjoy it.
  • You might be tempted to get one of the multimedia guides, but the labeling in the British Museum is in general very well-done and taking the time with a guide on certain objects might hold you up.
  • The museum’s website has guides for what to do if you have only 1 or 3 hours to see the museum.  These are good if you want just a general idea of the museum, but it’s often better to focus on what is particularly interesting to you.

Tate Modern might be the hipper museum choice in London, and morbid curiosity will always draw people tot he Tower of London to experience its gristly history, but no visit to the city is really complete without visiting the British Museum.  Like London itself, you feel as if the entire world is right there at your fingertips.

*Indeed I plan on devoting a few posts in the near future to artifact claims, repatriation, and how Western museums developed during Imperialism and what it means in a globalized society, specifically that major bone of contention located at the British Museum, the Pantheon Marbles.


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