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London’s busy home for ancient finds and cultural treasures from across the centuries, discovered across the world
When the British Museum was opened in 1759 it was the first national museum to be open to the public anywhere in the world. It was free to visit (and still is) so that any ‘studious and curious persons’ could pass through its doors and look upon the strange objects collected from all over the globe.
Centuries before television, this was a chance for anyone to stand in front of specimens and antiquities and connect with other cultures, ancient and contemporary. The first exhibits consisted of the collection of physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane – ancient coins and medals, books and natural remains – and through the centuries since, it has become home to the most significant finds made by British explorers at home and abroad, like the Rosetta Stone from Ancient Egypt and the Parthenon sculpture from the Acropolis in Athens.
In recent years there have been campaigns by other nations who want some of their historic treasures returned. (The issue over who has a legal right to the Elgin Marbles was most recently taken up on behalf of Greece by Amal Clooney.) However, the British Museum remains one of the world’s most popular attractions, with six million visitors a year. And although many of its priceless artefacts are protected by glass cases, the museum is anything but a hushed old resting place.
As soon as you walk into the magnificent glass-roofed Great Court you can hear the buzz of students, tourists and Londoners who have just popped in for lunch among the treasures. The British Museum is a working organisation carrying out research and conservation and that’s reflected in the breadth of the collection and the way in which it’s displayed.
The galleries are divided by location and periods in history – Ancient Iran, Greece, China from 5000BC onwards, Roman Britain and so on – and if you’re overwhelmed by the choice, follow one of the free 20-minute spotlight tours led by the guides every Friday, or check one of the free exhibitions dedicated to a specific theme or works of art. There are daily free activities for kids, too, including crafts, activity trails and digital workshops – perfect when there’s a homework project that needs to be fired by inspiration.
44 Great Russell St
|Transport:||Tube: Tottenham Court Rd/Holborn/Russell Square|
|Price:||Free (permanent collection); admission charge applies for some temporary exhibitions|
|Opening hours:||Open daily 10am–5.30pm, Friday until 8.30pm. Closed Jan 1, Dec 24–|
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