The British Museum
A Chronicle of Civilization
By Rick Steves
In the 19th century, the British flag flew over one-fourth of the world. London was the world's capital, where women in saris walked the streets with men in top hats. And England collected art as fast as it collected colonies.
The British Museum is the chronicle of Western civilization. History is a modern invention. Three hundred years ago, people didn't care about crumbling statues and dusty columns. Nowadays, we value a look at past civilizations, knowing that "those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it."
The British Museum is the only place I can think of where you can follow the rise and fall of three great civilizations — Egypt, Assyria, and Greece — in a few hours with a coffee break in the middle. And, while the sun never set on the British Empire, it will on you, so use my London guidebook's self-guided tour to see just the most exciting two hours.
The most popular sections of the museum fill the ground floor: Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and ancient Greek — with the famous Elgin Marbles from Athens' Parthenon. Huge winged lions (which guarded Assyrian palaces 800 years before Christ) guard these great ancient galleries. But be sure to venture upstairs where you'll find artifacts from Roman Britain that surpass anything you'll see at Hadrian's Wall or elsewhere in Britain. Nearby, the Dark Age Britain exhibits offer a rare peek at that bleak era.
Enjoy the museum's recent face-lift, done in celebration of the new millennium. The Great Court is Europe's largest covered square, bigger than a football field. This people-friendly court — delightfully out of the London rain — was for 150 years one of London's great lost spaces...closed off and gathering dust. Now it's the 140-foot-wide glass-domed hub of a two-acre cultural complex. While the vast British Museum wraps around the court, its centerpiece is the stately Reading Room, a study hall for Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, W. B. Yeats, Mark Twain, V.I. Lenin, and for Karl Marx while formulating his ideas on communism and writing Das Kapital. It is normally free and open to the quiet public, but sometimes hosts special exhibits..