Unreal; one of London’s top attractions, and absolutely free. I have been there several times but have not even scratched the surface of the millions of things to see, peek at the Rosetta Stone, and move on to Aztec mosaic masks or the head-smashed ‘Lindow Man’ (a 1st-century unfortunate found in a peat bog in 1984) and I found that I still had over seven million other items for subsequent visits. Watch for worthwhile 20- and 50-minute eyeOpener tours offered for free too.
The mother (or should that be ‘mummy’?) of all museums, the British Museum is the world’s oldest national public museum and London’s top free attraction. Since opening in 1759 to "all curious and studious persons," people have come to view the unrivalled collections of antiquities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, Britain, and everywhere else imaginable.
With over seven million objects it’s impossible to see everything on one visit so either pick one or two civilizations and spend an hour or two exploring their cultures in depth, or head straight for the highlights – the Rosetta Stone (the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics), the Parthenon Sculptures (controversially brought to Britain from Athens in the early 19th century), and, of course, the mummies. From how until September, the exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum will showcase objects from the city famously buried by a volcano in 79 AD.
The Parthenon Sculptures in room 18, the largest of the museum, are certainly the best known highlights of the British Museum.
In another comment I expressed my position about the controversy by the Greek government concerning the Elgin Marbles. I'm definitively in favour of a status quo and this is my position for all museums. It would be a non sense to move all artefacts back to their country of origin.
Nevertheless on each of my visits, I found the display of the sculptures in the Duveen Gallery questionable because the original perspective is ignored.
The friezes, metopes and pediment came from the upper part of the Parthenon. The Doric columns are 10 m high so that the sculptures above them stood at a height of about 12 m as you can see from the figure on my photo n°2.
The perspective was therefore quite different from the present display in room 18 at eye-level (photos 1 & 3).
The Duveen Gallery is high and wide enough to recreate a perspective closer to the original one of the Parthenon.
In the next room 17 is a reconstruction of one of the sides of the Nereid monument, the largest and finest of the Lykian tombs found at Xanthos in south-west Turkey.
This reconstruction of the Nereid monument shows how the perspective of the display of the Parthenon sculptures could be improved.
The controversy started at the time of Melina Mercouri and increased in such way that the British Museum feels now obliged to put leaflets in the Parthenon room (n° 18) as justification of keeping the Elgin marbles.
The British Museum's position is the following:
"The Parthenon sculptures are integral to the Museum's purpose as a world museum telling the story of human cultural achievement…
The current division of the surviving sculptures in eight countries … allows different and complementary stories to be told about them, focussing respectively on their importance for the history of Athens and Greece, and their significance for world culture."
I think the British Museum is right but for more general reasons:
1° Museums worldwide have protected artefacts from destruction.
Just an example about Athens: in the seventies, I have seen four of the original Caryatides on the Acropolis. They were so corroded by the air pollution that they had to be put inside a museum and replaced by copies.
In the British Museum, room 19, there is one Caryatid in a much better state than those of Athens. What would be the condition of the Elgin marbles if left in Athens?
2° Museums gave the opportunity and still give the opportunity to millions of people, who had/have not the means to travel to Greece or Egypt, to see, close to their home, artefacts of past civilisations. Without museums such as the British Museum ancient cultures would still be ignored by most people.
3° These controversies hide economical interests linked to tourism. A number of countries on the southern border of the Mediterranean Sea - I do not include Greece among them - show interest for their past civilisations only since tourists want to spent money to visit them.
You can easily spend all day if not 2 days walking around the British Museum, there are shops that sell food but a sandwich was about £4 so cheaper to go out for lunch and then come back in. Entrance is free!
Home to the famous Elgin Marbles and other assorted items pilfered by the British Empire over the centuries, the British museum is one of the best museums I have ever visited - and it's free!
The famous Parthenon sculptures which were removed from the outside of the building in Athens and brought to England by Lord Elgin (and so known as the Elgin marbles) who was the British ambassador to the Ottoman court (the Ottomans ruled Greece) at the time are probably the most famously controversial of the exhibits, but they are far from being my favourite. There is much more interesting stuff in the museum, you just have to look around.
Another famous exhibit is the Rosetta Stone from Ancient Egypt which enables the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to be deciphered for the first time. A number of other rooms devoted to ancient Egypt are always popular.
Some of the best parts of the museum are those that are less famous, in my opinion, they are certainly going to be less crowded. The ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia sections are very interesting, as are the North American, Mexican and Far Eastern sections.
You won't be able to see the whole museum in one go. Any attempt to do so will leave you defeated and "museumed out", so I'd suggest having a look at the website first and choosing one or two sections you most want to see and then just concentrate on these. As it's free to get in you can come back another day to see other sections (providing you are still in London, of course!).
One key attraction which is not an exhibit is the roof in the courtyard area. It is amazing and will not fail to impress when you enter.
I would say that the Egyptian Section of the British Museum were the most "popular" one. Maybe because of all the films made on mummies. Anyhow it is amazing and morbid as well.
The mummification procedure in Egypt was removing the lungs, liver, stomach and intestines and preserving them in a jar. The heart was not removed. Then the brain was removed through the nose, but it was not preserved. Then the body was packed in salt and wrapped tightly with bandages. This was done to ensure a good afterlife for the dead.
The mummies are examined with X-rays and CT-scans as not to cause any damage to the mummies.
Maybe the best "known" mummy at the museum is the 5500 year old mummy the Gebelein man - see my second photo. It is unbelievably well preserved, and I almost felt badly about his body lying there with all the people watching. He was found in 1896 and had been naturally mummified in a shallow grave - from the direct contact with the hot sand. He is one of the best preserved mummies from Egypt. Before mummification was taken into practise bodies were dried out like this in the sand.
There were mummified pets there a well, kind of strange seeing a mummified cat. Other animals which were mummified were falcons, bulls and crocodiles - these animals were sacred and regardesd as intemediaries for the gods. Vast number of mummified animals have been found, amongst them birds, but cats are the most common animal mummies - linked to the goddess Bastet - and ibises - linked to the god Thoth.
This section is the most crowded one at the museum. I was trying to read up on the mummies and learning about them, as I found this so fascinating, but it was almost impossible as more and more people kept coming into this section of the musem, taking photos with flash. The mummies are kept behind glass, so I don´t see the point in using flash. It was so disturbing.
I overheard a conversation at the Egyptian section - two men were sure these were replicas of mummies. I totally understand that they would think so, it is amazing really that we get the chance to see these mummies up close like this.
The British Museum is one of the most popular and most visited museums in the world. It was founded in 1753 and is the oldest national museum in the world. It was first opened in an aristocratic mansion, but was moved to its current location in 1820s. The oldest part of the museum is the King´s Library. I like the modern addition to the museum, by one of the entrances, it is so symmetric (see my first photo).
The British museum is massive, it takes most of the day visiting it, I spent 3,5 hours in there. Like with other national museums, one needs to visit them twice, as after a couple of hours one stops taking in more information, which is a shame as these museums are goldmines.
There is an Egyptian section with all the mummies and Egyptian history. Then there is a section on Ancient Near East. Another section on Britain and Europe. And a section on Greece and Rome. An America and Mexico section. An Asia section. And the Africa section is down in the cellar. So it is understandable that it takes up most of the day to walk through the museum and read up on each section.
On the 5th floor there is the Japanese section and in the cellar is the Islamic section.
On the main floor is the Rosetta stone, which enabled the Egyptian hieroglyphs to be deciphered. A replica of the Rosetta stone is in the Library and people are encouraged to touch it. I overheard a conversation at the Library when some visitors thought that this might be the real Rosetta stone and were amazed that it was so poorly kept at the museum ;)
On the main floor is the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery with the large Egyptian sculptures. It is amazing walking there, surreal really, walking amongst these huge sculptures. This is a very popular photo-stop at the British museum.
Some sections of the museum are more crowded than others. At the Egyptian mummie´s section it was difficult to move around - on the other hand I was alone in the Islamic section and very few people were in the Japanic section. But those sections were kind of hard to find at the museum.
Opening hours: daily 10:00-17:30 open longer on Fridays like the other national museums and galleries - from 10:00-20:30.
Photos with flash are allowed. I kind of wish they wouldn´t allow flash as it is a bit disturbing.
The museum is so big and interesting that I lack words for writing more about it, one has to visit it to experience it.
While the entire concept of a museum or gallery can be controversial in some circles, the most publically recognized controversy to stem from the British Museum’s collection surrounds the Elgin Marbles. Taken from the Parthenon in Athens in 1812 by the former British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, they are currently on display at the British Museum. The most spectacular component of the marbles is the Parthenon Frieze, from the 5th century BCE. There is no definitive interpretation of the frieze, but it appears to show various processions of celebrants, including both men in martial costume and civilians, including women. It is exemplary of the Attic style of engraving and was likely completed under the instruction of Pheidias. The marbles also contain various pediments, statuary and other relics that exhibit the refined and highly detailed style of sculpture achieved by Attic craftsmen. The marbles are the subject of a diplomatic dispute between the UK and Greece and, although the Greek government has constructed a museum for their return to Athens, it does not appear that they will be returned any time soon. Nevertheless, they are well exhibited in London, and it would be a shame for anyone visiting the city not to see these polemic works of art.
It’s difficult to distill the value of visiting the British Museum into a written explanation of some photographs. Let’s put it this way: you can go to Greece, or Iraq, or Syria, or Italy, and see the places where ancient works of art once stood, or you can go to the British Museum and view the ancient works of art themselves. Originally established in 1753 as the collection of Sir Sloane, it has stood on its current site since 1759. Its collection has grown to over eight million pieces and has examples of the cultures and creative energies of peoples from all seven continents. This wealth of items is largely due to the British colonial period, when the British Crown held territories across the world and its travelers, amongst the most intrepid of European expatriates, returned to the country with items they had purchased (or, occasionally, stolen) from distant lands. Over the years, portions of the collection have been split off to ensure that other institutions, such as the British Library and the British Natural History Museum, could be founded. The mission of the institution has also changed, from one that exhibited artifacts as curiosities, to a place of education and scholarship, aiming both to inform the public of the wider world and the cultures of other countries, and to provide a basis upon which researchers and scholars might conduct their investigations. The Museum is not without controversy, but it has sought to try to incorporate and address dissenting views, and has also taken a critical look at collections and the fascination with “the other.” The Museum has organized exhibits of modern British and North American cultural trends, seeking to establish links between and comparisons with other cultures, and continuous re-evaluates its presentation of artifacts, leading to new and impressive means of explaining its collection (such as the Islamic gallery).
Founded in an age of great discovery, and building its collection as the pre-eminent museum at the heart of the greatest empire the world has ever known, the British Museum is easily one of the best of its kind in the world. Permanent exhibits are world famous, and sometimes extremely controversial, taken as they were from countries either in the British Empire, or under British protectorate.
My personal favourite is the Rosetta Stone, the discovery of which finally allowed the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics after years of failure. The incredible stone had the exact same text written on it in three languages of the region at that time: one well known, Greek, one obscure, Demotic, and one completely indecipherable: Hieroglyphics. With a phrase in that language now understood, the world of Ancient Egyptians opened up to historians.
The Rosetta Stone makes up just one small part of the enormous Egyptian collection. Then you have the Greek collection with the controversial Elgin Marbles, an exhibit that makes the Greeks so mad they built a museum for the Parthenon with a great empty space where the Elgin Marbles are to go if they are ever returned.
As well as exhibits from all over the empire, there's also an extensive local collection too, probably the most famous of which is the treasure of Sutton Hoo. This was one of the most incredible prehistoric discoveries, and the ceremonial helmet is a British icon recognizable by everyone. You can find that and much more in the British Museum.
And possibly the best thing of all about this museum: it's FREE.
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