The British Museum's Great Courtyard. photo @ Pixabay

A Virtual Visit to the British Museum

Years ago, I stood in the British Museum and walked through its exhibits. I explored its rooms with my family for a full day, and I still felt that I only scratched the surface, so I have plans to return.

Now is definitely not a good time for that return visit. But that doesn’t mean I can’t explore the museum. Instead of walking through it, I can visit it from my own living room. Since we are all cooped up inside these days, one of the best ways to travel around the world is virtually.

I’ve been taking advantage of these virtual trips. I travel the world through books, and through virtual visits to National Parks, the Met and other world class art museums. And I also spent time in the virtual world visiting the British Museum.

The British Museum

The first national public museum in the world covering all fields of human knowledge, the British Museum first opened its doors in 1759. Although free (as it still is today), in the early days of its opening, visitors had to apply for tickets and given a personal tour of the exhibits.

Eventually, visiting hours expanded and now the museum is normally open for long hours and free for everyone. And now, while it is closed because of Covid19, most of its collections are set up for viewing online.

The museum houses over eight million objects from about two million years of human history. The foundation for the collection came in 1753 from the estate of Sir Hans Sloan, physician and collector, President of the Royal Society.

His global network, and connections helped him grow his immense collection to about 80,000 natural rarities, 40,000 books and manuscripts, and 32,000 coins and medals. He might have been wealthy, but part of the money to buy all this came from slave labor on the Jamaican sugar plantation.

However he got to his collection, after his death, the Act of Parliament bought it for the public, and, along with the Cotton, Harley and Royal Libraries, establish a new type of institution, where the collections were available for the public, for anyone interested. They called this new establishment the British Museum.

Over time, the museum’s collection grew to over eight million objects. That makes a visit overwhelming if you try to take it all in at once. Visiting with young kids, I felt that we only managed to explore less than half the museum, even if we walked through all of the rooms.

Exploring the Museum With Kids

It’s been over a decade since I stood in the British Museum. The first time I set foot inside the Great Courtyard, I was in awe. It was larger, and more open than any museum I’ve ever been to before. We spent a lot of time in this courtyard with the kids, taking breaks between exploring the galleries.

I remember walking through these amazing mementos of human history, distracted by my toddler, while listening to my two older kids who seemed to know more about the ancient world than I gave them credit for. We let them roam alone as long as they stayed in the same rooms as us. Since they were learning about ancient civilizations in school, the museum exhibits of the ancient world offered the perfect extra-curricular field trip opportunity.

As students of the ancient Maya, both my husband and I enjoyed the rooms dedicated to ancient Mexico. We saw historical and artistic objects we only read about in books, even if we visited the sites they came from.

We also spent a lot of time in the Ancient Egypt Galleries. Our kids were studying Ancient Egypt, and were intrigued by the mummies and the culture based around it.

As much as I enjoyed that visit, I was distracted by trying to keep my toddler entertained, without loosing my older kids. I’d love to walk through the museum now, when my kids are all older. But even if I can’t be there in person, I can explore the museum from my own home, virtually.

Visiting the British Museum from Home

Let’s face it, in many ways, exploring an immense museum like the British Museum online is more convenient than being there in person. Not only that, but you can get more out of it.

True, it doesn’t compare with actually being there, standing in the same room as the artifacts you admire, and seeing them in real life. But a virtual visit bring something entirely different into the experience. I find it easier to learn about the objects when I can examine their photos and read about them at leisure, in my own room, undisturbed my the noise of other visitors.

And the museum set up many different ways to explore it virtually, from Google Street View and on the Google Arts and Culture Site to Virtual Galleries on the museum’s own site, and stories about the displays. The museum published a post on its own blog about 11 ways to explore it from home, a great virtual-visitor map to start with.

From that list, pick and choose your favorite, or try all of them. Since I have used the Google Arts and Culture site, I started with that, but my favorite way to explore the museum is through virtual walks through their galleries, and the stories about the displayed works.

Exploring the Ancient Mexico Exhibits from Home

I started with the Google Arts and Culture’s virtual tour of the Mexican culture exhibits. As I virtually walked though the rooms, I stopped in front of the famous Lintel 24 from Yaxchilan, just like I did years ago, in person. Not a pleasant image by any stretch of the imagination, depicting bloodletting of a noble woman by pulling a thorn-filled rope through her tongue, the lintel is still a perfect example of the amazing artistry of the Classic Maya. It was one of the first images, in our book, A Forest of Kings, that got me intrigued and interested in the ancient Maya culture.

Then I noticed a story about the hieroglyphic stairway in Palenque. I just learned that the British Museum is involved in reconstructing the original I’ve seen during my last trip to the site. After centuries of being exposed to the elements, it is eroded. But it seems like next time I visit, I might see a clear replica on top, thanks in part to the British Museum.

The Egyptian Sculptures Gallery and the Rosetta Stone

I also revisited virtually the Egyptian Sculptures Gallery through Google’s Arts and Culture site, combined with the museum’s own site. The room’s centerpiece is the Rosetta Stone, famous not because of its uniqueness but its importance in deciphering an ancient language.

While it took centuries and a lot of work from epigraphers from all over the world to decipher the Maya glyphs, deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs took a much shorter time thanks to the Rosetta Stone.

the Rosetta Stone @Pixabay
The Rosetta Stone. Image from Pixabay

The stone’s importance doesn’t have much to do with what the text said. It was a simple public document, a directive, a piece of political propaganda, etched in stone in Ancient Egypt, in 196 BC, during the reign of Ptolemy. One of many, it was written to claim publicly that he was the official pharaoh of Egypt.

The major significance of the stone was that he got the text etched in both Greek and Egyptian, and in three writing systems: hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. At the time, all three languages and writing systems were used in Egypt. The ancient hieroglyphic writing for sacred documents, the newer, still Egyptian, demotic writing, used by the public, and Greek used for public documents. Since the linguists working on deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs understood the Greek text, the stone etched in the three writing systems offered them a tremendous help.

I learned all this and more from the story of the Rosetta Stone on the museum’s website,

Explore More of the Museum’s Online Collection

The Mesoamerica and Ancient Egypt galleries are just a taste of what’s available of the museum’s online collections. I started with those because they are of most interest to me. But I’ve also been exploring much more, and I’ll be spending weeks with the rest of the exhibits.

You can explore the galleries, of course, more than 60 of them. You can also search for something specific you are interested in.

Or you can explore the collection by themes. Personally, I like this idea the most. And, I wouldn’t be able to do so if visiting in person. Besides grouping the collections by location, like the Americas, China, Africa, and Egypt themed collections, they are also grouped by Animals, Death and Memory, and Desire, Love and Identity.

The Animals Collection

The Animals Collection, for example, showcases art works representing animals from all over the museum, from ancient Greek statues of horses, to drawings by Dürer and other artists, to Chinese porcelain elephant, and ancient Egyptian statues. The objects represent both real and mythical animals.

Being a cat-lover, with two Oriental shorthairs following me around the house, I was naturally drawn to the Egyptian cat statue, one of the museum’s most famous pieces, the Gayer-Anderson cat. I see my own cats in the same pose at times, and we have replica of this for reference. On the virtual tour of the British Museum you can see this famous cat in 3D, and read its story.

Much More to Explore

You’ll find so much more to explore when you open the Virtual Exhibits. And, unlike visiting in person, you can stop and come back to it any time. You can take your time and explore a few galleries at a time, or just learn everything about one object in one day, then return to do the same with others.

A great experience and excuse for learning for adults, a virtual visit to the British Museum is even better for school-aged kids. They can add to their school-based lessons in a fun way, without even realizing they are still learning.

While we are unable to travel, we’ve been having fun visiting the British Museum virtually, from our own home. It’s been one of the most fun and satisfying experience of our quarantine days.

British Museum virtual visit

4 thoughts on “A Virtual Visit to the British Museum”

  1. I love how much we can do online these days, it really is amazing! I have watched some National Theatre shows, but I haven’t done any virtual museum tours yet, so thank you for this!

  2. I think we will be seeing more and more of these virtual types of “vacations” for a while. Thank you for sharing about the museum and the links to other virtual sites is so helpful and fun.

    1. These virtual vacations are pretty cool; we’ve been enjoying them. I think they will stay even after we can travel, they can always add to real travel experiences, too, with more info about a place. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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