When we visit the world’s top museums as a family, the goal of my husband the Harvard history major is to map out the notable highlights so that we can enjoy them before our daughter’s attention span runs out. The British Museum is one place where this technique doesn’t feel like a sprint, and there are several reasons for this.
We know the British Museum well, having lived in London. There are over 8 million objects in its collection with about 80,000 on display. Admission is free, and it’s centrally-located in Russell Square. Here are our best tips for visiting the British Museum with kids.
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Kids Need Some Exhibit Backstory
The famous artifacts inside really do pique a young child’s interest, which is excellent because many appear at some point in school textbooks. However, you will need to provide kids with a few sentences of historical backstory to up the cool factor of whatever it is they are admiring. There are several ways to do this.
Tour on Your Own
This is easy for my husband who can explain an artifact’s historical significance in just a few kid-friendly sentences (people often step closer to overhear). I had him write the descriptions below each recommended stop on this list. The items are selected because they are incredibly famous, evocative for kids and deemed cool by my daughter. (However, you tour the British Museum with kids, you’re likely to see most of them anyway.)
THATBrit British Museum Treasure Hunt
The other way enhance a child’s visit to the British Museum is via a fabulous British Museum treasure hunt with THATMuse (which stands for Treasure Hunt at The Museum). Over the course of about 90 minutes, my daughter and her two friends took off on their own (this is how easy the British Museum is to navigate) to see how many items on the list they could find. We parents made up the other team in this friendly competition. (Of course, we were connected by cell phone and had established meeting points.)
Part of the fun, is proving that you found each artifact by posing in a certain way in front of it or answering bonus questions. Trust me; these girls happily explored one of the world’s most famous museums while learning much more than I could have taught them along the way. I call that a victory. Regrettably, we misplaced the flashcard with the kids’ photos, but I will share them here if it (fingers crossed) resurfaces.
THATMuse is suitable for teams of adults, too. And, even if you’re not in a group, you can still enjoy a treasure hunt. My daughter and I were our own team for a THATd’Or treasure hunt at Musee d’Orsay. We didn’t compete with anyone, and it was a ton of fun to be challenged to find various paintings on our own.
Free themed gallery backpacks are available for kids on weekends and school holidays (that follow the Camden borough calendar). The backpacks are sorted by interest and age. They contain activities that kids can complete throughout the British Museum in roughly 90 minutes or less.
The British Museum traditional audio guides walk guests through 200 exhibits in detail that is probably most appropriate for teens and older. However, they now also have an interactive game-based guide that allows families to explore the galleries through a series of unique adventures.
British Museum Highlights for Kids
However you tour the British Museum, these are the items that are an excellent combination of what you should see and what your kids may like best.
The Rosetta Stone is the Mona Lisa of the British Museum. Quite simply, you cannot visit the British Museum and not make a point to see the Rosetta Stone, even if you just pass by it for 10 seconds just to say you did. The THATMuse treasure hunt awards bonus points for taking a photo in front of the Rosetta Stone with no one else in it… it’s hard! It is usually surrounded by crowds three or more deep at times so if you do arrive at the British Museum right when it opens, head to the Rosetta Stone first.
The Rosetta Stone is a stone slab fragment about the size of a large tombstone that was found by a French soldier in Egypt in 1799, during the Napoleonic campaign there. After 20 years of study, it enabled a Frenchman named Champollion to translate Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time. This is because the stone contains the same decree by Ptolemy V written in three languages (Demotic and Ancient Greek as well).
Before that academic breakthrough, British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, and the original Rosetta Stone itself has been in the British Museum since then.
Parthenon Sculptures (aka the Elgin Marbles)
The Parthenon Sculptures (otherwise known as the Elgin Marbles) are the second most famous part of the British Museum’s collection. They are also perhaps the most infamous for the controversy—a story that kids may enjoy—about how it all was obtained and why it hasn’t been returned to Athens, despite ongoing requests from Greece for years.
Built 2,500 years ago, the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens was a severely damaged ruin by 1801. It was then that Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and a Greek art enthusiast, began removing the remaining marble sculptures from the site. He had the authorization of the then-governing Ottoman Empire to do so. Over the next four years, he ultimately sent about half of what remained of the marble sculptures to London for safekeeping.
They were first displayed in the British Museum in 1817. Despite not being little spherical balls, they were known as the Elgin Marbles for many decades until recently, when Greek demands that they are returned intensified and the name fell into disfavor.
Most elementary school-age kids like dinosaurs, mummies, and spaceships. This checks one of those boxes in spades.
Among the most iconic objects on public display at the British Museum are several adjoining rooms with eye-popping displays of ancient Egyptian mummies, coffins, funerary masks and other burial and funerary items. There are several things that kids (and adults) love in this section.
- Mummies: Probably the single most famous mummy on display is of an old woman named Katebet who was Chantress of Amun, the ”˜King of the Gods’. But there are many others.
- Mummified animals: There are not only human mummies on display, either. The Egyptians also mummified various types of animals, including cat mummies and the famous bull mummy on display here.
- Ginger: Ginger is the name of a naturally mummified human preserved by desert sand. Ginger’s name stems from the fact that he is so well-preserved with a patch of red hair still visible on his skull.
Hoa Hakananai’a (Easter Island Statue)
The name of this basalt moai (ancestor figure), Hoa Hakananai’a, means lost or stolen friend. It’s from the remote island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the Pacific Ocean. The famous moai were carved starting around 1000 AD through 1500 AD, to commemorate critical former leaders.
Moai are also referred to as Easter Island heads because many of them have torsos that were or still are buried, with their disproportionately large heads visible above ground. There are currently 887 documented moai on Easter Island.
This is a cool exhibit that definitely needs a little explanation.
Hadrian’s Wall (aka the Roman Wall) was built by occupying Roman soldiers starting in 122 AD. It is, literally, a wall spanning coast-to-coast across what is today Northern England. Its remains are still today. (We’ve been there. It’s amazing.)
The 80-mile wall more or less marked the northern frontier edge of Roman control of Britain, which was at the far edge of the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers stationed there were, for them, at the end of the world.
These wood tablets (found in 1973) contain writings from those Roman soldiers dating back almost 2,000 years ago now. Their subjects vary from official military matters to boring personal issues intended for friends and family, like letters. The Vindolanda Tablets humanize voices from a long distant, dead past.
Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial is located upstairs in a gallery (room 41) highlighting the history of Britain and Europe in the tumultuous centuries between 300 AD to 1100 AD. During this time the Roman Empire declined in the West and the Byzantine Empire (and Christianity) rose to increasing prominence in the East.
The spectacular artifacts from the Sutton Hoo ship burial bring this period to life very memorably. Even if a child isn’t familiar with any of this history, the well-preserved helmets and swords and shields will catch their attention nonetheless.
These artifacts were discovered in 1939 in Suffolk, England in a treasure-filled burial mound of a leading, local Anglo-Saxon from about 600 AD. Objects include treasures from the Byzantine Empire.
Aztec Double-Headed Turquoise Serpent
Called a Turquoise Mosaic in the museum’s vernacular, this stunning double-headed serpent is made of wood that has then been covered with turquoise in a mosaic using pine resin. It was probably worn across the chest as an adornment.
It’s thought that it was one of the gifts given by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II, to Spanish conquistador Hernà¡n Cortés when he invaded Mexico in 1519.
Kids simply seem to like the serpents color and the fact that it’s double-headed.
Royal Game of Ur
All you need to tell kids is that this is the oldest board game in the world. The Royal Game of Ur game boards were found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. The two boards date from the First Dynasty of Ur which is before 2600 BC.
Whether you also tell them it’s possible to buy replicas of the Royal Game of Ur online on Amazon (we’ve also seen it in the past in the British Museum store) is up to you.
The Lewis Chessman is one of the most noteworthy parts of the museum’s collection.
This chess set, thought to be made in the late 1100s in Norway, is among the most famous chess sets in the world. Found on the Isle of Lewis around 1831, it demonstrates the connections between the British Isles and Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, as well as the popularity of Chess in Europe even at that time (the game having originated in India around 500 BC).
And, there are many more intriguing objects in the British Museum to see if time permits.
British Museum Map
If you’re feeling particularly organized or that you might be in a rush, locate exhibits of interest on the British Museum map in advance. Or, pick up a map at the information desk and head straight to the Rosetta Stone while figuring out where to go next.
Where to Eat in the British Museum
After all of these years, one thing we have yet to do is dine in the Great Court Restaurant (next time). The museum stays open until 8:30 p.m. on Fridays so it would be nice to tour it before or after dinner here under the magnificent glass roof. They also serve afternoon tea and lunch.
The central rotunda also has a simpler, grab-and-go Court Café with tables at which to sit and eat among the impressive interior architecture. We have grabbed several items from there over the years, especially drinks, and have always been more than satisfied.
And, the Pizzeria is a new addition off of room 12.
However, there are also quite a few places to eat within walking distance of the British Museum including many fish and chips shops in Bloomsbury. Last time, we tried Alen’s, and it was great.
Can You See the British Museum in an Hour?
Yes. Entry to the British Museum is free so there are no ticket queues. However, these days, it’s advisable to also plan time to pass through a security check prior to entering the museum (this is relatively new). We arrived 15 minutes before the museum opened on a Sunday and sped right through but there were substantial queues when we left a few hours later.
Its layout is conducive to touring highlights in an hour, though I would strongly recommend at least two inside.
As you walk in, there are a couple of large Information Desks with free floor plan maps in many languages. Many of the objects (but not all) highlighted here are already highlighted on the maps, too.
What are your best tips for visiting the British Museum with kids or without?