LONDON — Outside the British Museum, the courtyard and front steps are nearly as crowded as the foyer inside. This is a people place, great for watching patrons as they come and go and for listening to dozens of accents and languages as the world comes to visit.
For more than 250 years, the British Museum has housed the keepsakes and archaeological souvenirs of British imperialism: the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian mummies in their ancient repose, the Elgin Marbles from Greece (they want them back) and a wonderfully eclectic collection of all things old and ancient.
Whenever the quirky English weather cooperates, people sun themselves on the steps. A few selected snack wagons dispense sweets to one side. A special elevator lifts visitors using wheelchairs and parents with prams to the ground-floor level.
This is not to say this grande dame of museums goes unchanged. Eleven years ago, the museum reopened the Great Court, 2 acres on the ground floor that once was the largest covered public space in Europe when it opened in the 1800s. When the museum's famous collection of manuscripts, the Reading Room, was relocated to another part of London, the opportunity came to redesign and reopen the Great Court.
Today, a major exhibition space holds the center of the Great Court. While museum admission is free, these exhibitions come with a fee. Visitors can stroll the fringes of the major exhibition space, shopping at the gift stalls that ring the round venue. A self-serve cafeteria sits in one corner, an information desk in another. Now visitors can stroll the outer area freely for the first time in 150 years. Hopefully, they will also occasionally glance upward and admire the lead glass dome over the entire area.
The current featured exhibit, "Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman," runs through February. The exhibit celebrates builders, designers and people who create things both material and spiritual. The exhibit will offer items ranging from holy relics to motorbikes, most pulled from the museum's own collection of more than 8 million objects made by men and women across the ages and throughout the globe. The exhibit will also include works by Perry on the same theme of creating and crafting cultural icons.
The redesign in 2000 created this new exhibition space in addition to the center venue. The Salisbury Galleries house objects from the museum's Africa collection; the Wellcome Trust Gallery is home to a series of long-term, cross-cultural displays. Currently on view: an exhibit on "Living and Dying."
Upon entering the British Museum, it's tempting to take a deep breath. The scale of statues and monuments, almost in your face, is hard to ignore. If not breathtaking, it is certainly inspiring. While there are exhibition rooms in every direction and on multiple floors, there is also a sense of disorder at the same time.
Some of the most stunning artifacts seem placed just to impress. And impress they do. For example, in Room 4, the colossal head of King Amenhotep III, magnificently carved out of red granite in 1350 B.C., glares regally. The British Museum has the largest and most complete collection of Egyptian artifacts outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Scads of well-wrapped mummies await in another room, serene in their glass display cases, including the mummy of Cleopatra (100 B.C.).
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Elsewhere, the Elgin Marbles — statues removed in the 1800s from the ancient Greek Parthenon in Athens — reflect the craft and artistry of classical Greek architecture. For years, the Greek government has been trying to negotiate their return.
One way to find a quiet space, aside from the restrooms, awaits on the second floor of the Great Court, in the Court Restaurant. The menu for lunch (noon to 3 p.m.) ranges from a tasty Gilled Squid and Herb Salad (around $10) to Line Caught Tuna with Giant Prawns ($30). Traditional English Tea is served from 3 to 5:30 p.m., complete with scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam, for just over $30.
The many display rooms are often crowded with schoolchildren. A multitude of accents rings throughout the museum. It is easy to eavesdrop on tours in a half-dozen different languages going on at the same time. In this sense, history is alive at every turn.
Like many of the world's greatest museums, the British Museum began with a private collection, willed to the people by a physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). He presented his private collection of 71,000 items to King George II on the condition they would be preserved after his death. In June 1753, the British Museum was established by an act of Parliament. The founding collection consisted mostly of manuscripts, books and nature specimens.
The museum, which opened free to the pubic on Jan. 15, 1759, was first housed in a 17th century mansion on the site of the current museum. With the exception of the two world wars, the British Museum has remained open since, increasing in attendance from 5,000 per year to the current 6 million.