14 things not to miss at the British Museum
We’re excited to be reopening after our longest peacetime closure, so you can discover – or rediscover – two million years of human history!
As part of the new Museum experience, we have created a one-way route around the Ground floor galleries that lets you safely enjoy incredible objects from cultures around the world.
As well as more than 9,000 objects from the collection on display, you can also see two contemporary art installations along the route – Grayson Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and Edmund de Waal’s library of exile. Plus, there’s a new object trail exploring the relationship between collecting and empire.
Here’s our list of 14 things that you won’t want to miss.
1. Rosetta Stone
The key that unlocked ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Rosetta Stone is one of the Museum’s most famous objects.
Once part of a larger stone slab, it is inscribed with a decree (official order) carved into it. The decree in itself is not particularly unusual, but as is written in three types of writing (or scripts) – hieroglyphs, Demotic (the native Egyptian script used for daily purposes, meaning ‘language of the people’) and Ancient Greek, meant that experts could use it to finally decipher hieroglyphics. This unlocked the world of ancient Egypt, from understanding its ancient history to beliefs in the afterlife
Find out more about the Rosetta Stone in our blog.
2. Sophilos Vase
This spectacular ancient Greek bowl and stand were made to hold wine mixed with water for a feast. They were made in Athens in around 580 BC. The vessel takes its name from the artist who made it – it is inscribed with the words ‘Sophilos made me’.
The vase is decorated with scenes from Greek myth including the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, parents of the hero Achilles. The mythical hero was one of the greatest warriors of the Trojan War, the story of which is told by Homer in the Iliad.
Find out more about Achilles and his famous heel in our blog.
3. The Parthenon Sculptures
Carved about 2,500 years ago, these ancient Greek sculptures adorned the Parthenon, a temple on the Athenian Acropolis (the ancient citadel on a rocky hill in the city). The temple was dedicated to the goddess Athena Parthénos, who was the patron deity of Athens. The word parthénos means ‘maiden, girl’ or ‘virgin, unmarried woman’.
The temple was richly decorated with sculptures, designed by the artist Pheidias. The pediments (the triangular structure on the top of the temple) and metopes (carved panels) illustrate episodes from Greek myth, while the frieze represents the people of Athens in a religious procession to celebrate the birthday of the goddess. A colossal image of Athena made of gold and ivory once stood inside the temple – it is now lost.
4. Grayson Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
This artwork on temporary display was made by British Museum Trustee and Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry. The piece, an iron ship sailing into the afterlife, is a memorial to all those unnamed skilled individuals – men and women – who have made the beautiful objects found in the Museum. The work will be displayed Room 17, next to the Nereid Monument from western Turkey, built in around 390 BC. The Nereid Monument was a tomb for a local ruler, built and carved by artists whose names are now lost.
Find out more about the display here.
Display supported by Christian and Florence Levett
5. Crouching Venus
This sculpture, from the second century AD, is a Roman version of a much earlier Greek statue of the goddess Aphrodite, or Venus to the Romans. The Greek marble or bronze original, now lost, was perhaps made between 200 and 100 BC. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and is often shown accompanied by Eros, the god of love, or cupids and doves. Here the sculpture makes the viewer a voyeur, surprising the goddess as she bathes.
The sculpture is on long-term loan from the Royal Collection. You can explore collections around the country and discover the fascinating connections between them using #CollectionsUnited on social media.
6. Bust of Ramesses the Great
This colossal bust is of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, who reigned from 1279–1213 BC. Weighing an incredible 7.5 tonnes, the bust was once part of a larger statue which sat in the Ramesseum, a temple in Thebes (modern Luxor) built by the pharaoh. Its decoration celebrated his military achievements and his close association with the creator god Amun-Ra. The press coverage of the bust’s transportation to the UK is believed to have inspired the poet Shelley’s favourite sonnet, Ozymandias.
You can explore what life was like in ancient Thebes in our Historical city travel guide blog.
7. The Ife Head
This naturalistic brass head is probably around 600 years old. It is considered to most likely depict an Ooni, a sacred king of the West African Kingdom of Ife. Ife, today in Nigeria, is regarded as the cultural and spiritual homeland of the Yoruba-speaking peoples and the title of Ooni is still that used today by the traditional ruler of Ife.
Representations of humans in art from Ife, like this one, have a striking, highly naturalistic style. In the past, Western scholars falsely believed that the Ife heads may have been influenced by Classical sculpture, or that they were made by Europeans, reflecting historic negative attitudes towards African art and culture and the perceived superiority of Western art.
The Ife Head gives us a perspective on the fascinating history of powerful rulers and kingdoms in medieval West Africa. Mary Beard, who recently became a Trustee of the British Museum, picked this object as one of her top five in the Museum – read her thoughts about this stunning sculpture here.
8. Tree of Life
This powerful sculpture was made for the British Museum in 2004 by four artists, Cristóvão (Kester) Canhavato, Hilario Nhatugeuja, Adelino Mate and Fiel dos Santos, working with decommissioned weapons in Mozambique.
In the aftermath of the armed struggle for independence from Portuguese colonial rule, achieved in 1974, Mozambique entered a period of civil war, from 1977. During this period millions of guns poured into the country. After the war ended in 1992, a scheme called ‘Transforming Arms into Tools’ was set up by the Mozambican Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane, encouraging Mozambicans to exchange weapons for other goods. The sculpture, made from weapons collected by the scheme, includes chopped-up AK-47 rifles, pistols and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
9. Akan Drum
This wooden drum is the earliest African-American object in the British Museum. It was collected in Virginia, then a British colony and now a state within the USA, around 1730. It was once incorrectly thought to be an object produced by Indigenous People of North America, but was in fact made in West Africa more than 300 years ago. It was probably made by a craftsperson of the Akan people in the region of present-day Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, hence it being known as the ‘Akan Drum’.
It is thought that the Akan Drum was taken to Virginia on a slave ship, part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade which transported millions of Africans to America against their will between the 17th and the 19th centuries. Drums were played during these journeys and captives were forced to dance for ‘exercise’ in order to keep them healthier for plantation labour amid the horrendous conditions. In North America, drums were confiscated and banned as part of the forced suppression of Africans and their culture.
10. Aztec serpent
Created in what is now Mexico in the 15th or 16th century, this extraordinary double-headed serpent sculpture is made of about 2,000 pieces of turquoise over a wooden base. It probably had ritual significance, perhaps being worn or carried during religious ceremonies.
Snakes were sacred to the Aztecs as they were the symbol of the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. The Aztec Empire consisted of many subject territories, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. Frequently they had to provide gifts as tribute to demonstrate their allegiance to the Aztec emperor. Tributes in the form of turquoise were particularly highly valued.
11. The Piranesi Vase
This 2.7-metre tall vase was constructed in the 1700s from a great number of classical fragments and modern additions. It belonged to the Italian engraver, architect and antiquarian Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1729–1778), who is best known for his architectural views of ancient and modern Rome, both real and imagined.
The vase, along with other pieces, was crafted by Piranasi from ancient fragments reportedly found at the Pantanello, a site on the grounds of the villa of the Roman emperor Hadrian at Tivoli, near Rome. He restored these fragments and incorporated them into highly decorative pastiches.
12. Edmund de Waal library of exile
Created as a ‘space to sit and read and be’, library of exile is an installation by British artist and writer Edmund de Waal, housing more than 2,000 books in translation, written by exiled authors.
The porcelain-covered room houses books from Ovid and Dante, to Marina Tsvetaeva and Judith Kerr, forming a record of repression while celebrating the response of the displaced.
The British Museum was home to the British Library from 1759 until 1997. The library of exile also speaks to objects in the Museum’s collection from the world’s historic libraries.
Find out more about the installation here.
Exhibition supported by AKO Foundation
13. Haida House Pole
This pole was made around 1850 and once stood at the front of a clan house in the village of Kayang, British Columbia, Canada. It features crests – ancestral beings that mark identity and endow families with rights to stories and property. The House and village of Kayang was deserted due to epidemics introduced by Europeans in the 19th century. Chief of the House sold the pole to a doctor who then sold it to the British Museum.
14. Hoa Hakananai’a
This statue, known as Hoa Hakananai’a, comes from the ceremonial village of Orongo on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). It is one of a number of statues, known as moai, for which the island is famous, which date to around AD 1000–1200.
Most moai were positioned on platforms (known as ahu), which generally faced away from the ocean, so the statues gazed inwards to the land and its people. Across Polynesia, Islanders worshipped ancestors who traced their lineages back to the gods. Moai were raised in honour of important deified ancestors. Today, Moai are described as the aringa ora, the living faces of the ancestors.
Hoa Hakananai’a is carved from hard basalt and on his back are a number of petroglyphs depicting frigate bird heads and human/bird figures, amongst other things. These relate to the island’s ‘birdman’ ceremonies which were associated with fertility and access to resources.
We can’t wait to welcome you back. Find out more about visiting the Museum and book your free tickets here.
We will be opening more of our galleries over the coming weeks and months. To check if a gallery is open visit the galleries page.