The British Museum is a public institution dedicated to human history, art and culture. Its permanent collection of some eight million works is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence, having been widely sourced during the era of the British Empire. It documents the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. It was the first public national museum in the world.
The British Museum was established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the Irish physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. It first opened to the public in 1759, in Montagu House, on the site of the current building. Its expansion over the following 250 years was largely a result of expanding British colonisation and has resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the British Museum (Natural History) – now the Natural History Museum – in 1881. In 1973, the British Library Act 1972 detached the library department from the British Museum, but it continued to host the now separated British Library in the same Reading Room and building as the museum until 1997. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and as with all national museums in the UK it charges no admission fee, except for loan exhibitions.
Its ownership of some of its most famous objects originating in other countries is disputed and remains the subject of international controversy, most notably in the case of the Parthenon Marbles.
These are the top 10 paintings to see at the British Museum:
- A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star by Samuel Palmer. This romantic landscape depicts a peaceful scene of rural life under a starry sky. Palmer was inspired by his stay in Shoreham, Kent, where he formed a group of artists called the Ancients.
- The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. This famous portrait shows two French diplomats surrounded by various objects that symbolize their interests and achievements. The painting also contains a hidden anamorphic skull that can only be seen from a certain angle, representing mortality and vanity.
- The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. This masterpiece of Northern Renaissance art depicts a wealthy merchant and his wife in their home in Bruges. The painting is full of details and symbols that reveal aspects of their life and status, such as the dog, the mirror, and the oranges.
- The Fighting Temeraire by J.M.W. Turner. This painting shows the last voyage of the Temeraire, a ship that fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed by a steam tug to be scrapped. Turner contrasts the old and the new, the past and the present, and the sublime and the mundane in this dramatic scene.
- The Hay Wain by John Constable. This painting depicts a rural scene in Suffolk, where Constable grew up. It shows a cart crossing a river on a sunny day, with a cottage and a church in the background. Constable wanted to capture the beauty and harmony of nature in his works.
- The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals. This portrait shows a young man dressed in a flamboyant costume, smiling confidently at the viewer. Hals was known for his lively and expressive style of painting, which captured the personality and mood of his subjects.
- The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn. This painting is one of the most famous works of Dutch Golden Age art, and it shows a group of militia men preparing for a patrol. Rembrandt used dramatic lighting and composition to create a sense of movement and drama in this large-scale canvas.
- The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. This painting depicts a tragic event that occurred in 1816, when a French shipwrecked off the coast of Africa and left its passengers on a makeshift raft for 13 days. Only 15 out of 147 survived, after enduring starvation, dehydration, cannibalism, and madness. Géricault interviewed some of the survivors and studied corpses to create this realistic and shocking scene.
- The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. This painting is one of the most famous and beloved works of modern art, and it shows a view of the night sky over Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where van Gogh stayed in an asylum after cutting off his ear. The swirling brushstrokes and bright colors convey his emotional state and his vision of nature.
- The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. This painting shows an unusual scene of Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, and an angel in a rocky cave. Leonardo used his scientific knowledge and artistic skills to create a realistic and mysterious atmosphere, with subtle lighting and shading effects.
These are the top 10 sculptures to see at the British Museum:
- The Rosetta Stone: This ancient stone slab contains a decree written in three languages: hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. It was crucial for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and unlocking the secrets of their civilization.
- The Parthenon Sculptures: These marble sculptures were once part of the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena on the Acropolis of Athens. They depict scenes from Greek mythology and history, such as the birth of Athena and the battle between the gods and the giants.
- The Lewis Chessmen: These carved walrus ivory pieces are among the oldest surviving chess sets in the world. They were made in Norway or Iceland in the 12th century and represent different social classes and occupations, such as kings, queens, bishops, knights and rooks.
- The Easter Island Statue: This colossal stone head is one of the mysterious moai statues that dot the island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the Pacific Ocean. They were carved by the islanders between the 13th and 16th centuries and may have been symbols of ancestral power and authority.
- The Assyrian Lion Hunt Reliefs: These bas-reliefs show scenes of King Ashurbanipal hunting lions, which was considered a royal sport and a demonstration of courage and skill. The reliefs are remarkable for their realism and dynamism, capturing the emotions and movements of both the hunters and the hunted.
- The Benin Bronzes: These brass plaques and sculptures were made by the Edo people of Benin (now Nigeria) between the 16th and 18th centuries. They depict various aspects of their culture and history, such as royalty, warriors, ceremonies and rituals.
- The Sutton Hoo Helmet: This iron helmet was part of a rich burial of an Anglo-Saxon king or nobleman in Suffolk, England. It dates from the 7th century and is decorated with intricate patterns and animal motifs. It is one of the most iconic examples of Anglo-Saxon art and craftsmanship.
- The Lindow Man: This preserved human body was found in a peat bog in Cheshire, England. It dates from the 1st century AD and shows evidence of a violent death, possibly as a ritual sacrifice. It is one of the best-preserved bog bodies in Europe and offers a glimpse into life and death in Iron Age Britain.
- The Cyrus Cylinder: This clay cylinder contains a declaration by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, after he conquered Babylon in 539 BC. It proclaims his respect for the religions and cultures of his subjects and grants them freedom and rights. It is considered one of the first documents of human rights in history.
- The Discobolus: This marble statue is a Roman copy of a Greek original by Myron, a famous sculptor of the 5th century BC. It depicts an athlete throwing a discus, capturing the moment of balance and tension before the release. It is one of the most celebrated examples of classical Greek art and athleticism.
Where Is The British Museum Located?
The British Museum is located at Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG.
The British Museum opens every day from 10.00 to 17.00, except on 24, 25 and 26 December and 1 January. The museum is free to enter, but you can also book tickets for special exhibitions and events on their website. If you are a student, a senior citizen, or a member of the Art Fund, you can enjoy discounted prices for some of the exhibitions.
How to get to British Museum?
To get to the The British Museum, you can use public transport such as buses, trains or the London Underground. The nearest tube stations are Tottenham Court Road, Holborn, Russell Square and Goodge Street. You can also walk or cycle to the museum, as there are bike racks available outside the main entrance. Alternatively, you can take a taxi or a private hire vehicle, but be aware that there is no parking available at the museum.
Once you are at the museum, you can take a self-guided tour using their Audio app, which is available in six languages including British Sign Language. You can download the app from the App Store or Google Play Store, or rent a device from the Guide Desk. You will need to bring your own headphones or buy earbuds from the museum shop. You can also join a free guided tour or a paid workshop, depending on your interests and availability.