Don't know much about history? You need a British Museum volunteer...

Height, breadth, and depth: the British Museum possesses these dimensions in abundance, both in the solid angles of the neo-Classical exterior and the whimsical flourishes of the Great Court. Its treasures extend back along the dimension of time for millennia. But, as I discovered in a single day's immersion in this English miracle, you need an extra dimension to get the most out of the collection: guides Helen, Keith or Carolyn, each of whom add the essential extra aspect of context.

One reason London is so popular with both British and overseas tourists is the policy of free admission to the nation's great museums and galleries. The British Museum tops the cultural pyramid, welcoming strangers and scholars to share in the historic riches it has accrued (sometimes controversially) since it was founded in 1753.

Yet many of the millions of visitors to this people's palace are unaware of another gift: the daily programme of "eyeOpener" tours, led by expert volunteers, who offer insights for the benefit of the curious and culturally challenged.

The Marxist view of history that prevailed at my school in Crawley in the Seventies places me firmly in the latter camp: I had been led to conclude that nothing much of interest had happened before the Agrarian Revolution. Helen, Keith and Carolyn put me right, each of them celebrating a specialism that shows the sheer depth and diversity of the British Museum.

"Art of the Middle East", with Helen, opened my eyes to the wealth of imagination and expertise that prevailed from Spain and north Africa to Asia while north-western Europeans shivered and stumbled through the Dark Ages.

In the 45 minutes that each eyeOpener tour lasts, you can learn an astonishing amount: from the spread of Islam from its heartland in Arabia, via the techniques used to glaze tiles, to the themes that recur in sacred and secular art of the Middle East. And all illustrated with examples whose exquisite artistry and intricate detail reveal much about the world whence they came.

Later, with his "Early Medieval Europe" tour, Keith pointed out that life wasn't entirely dreary in England in the 6th and 7th centuries. He celebrated the remarkable artefacts found by an amateur archaeologist at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939, which revealed a ship burial and a trove of objects from weapons and helmets to jewellery and ornaments. The society that mourned their king was in no sense isolated from the rest of Europe – indeed, Keith traced the trading connections with the Mediterranean, and led on to the arrival of the Vikings (or, "pirates", as he succinctly described them).

Keith's tour ended with the recommendation to check out the Lewis Chessmen, pieces sculpted from walrus ivory and whales' teeth with skill and subtlety to create an ensemble that could be 21st-century rather than 12th-century. Back to the future, indeed.

Rating a "premier league" of objects is a tricky business for any collection; to its credit, the British Museum offers a self-guided tour that allows the time-pressed to make the most of 60 minutes in Bloomsbury. The Lewis Chessmen make the grade, as do the Assyrian reliefs that Carolyn guided me through on her eyeOpener on these gypsum friezes, nearly 3,000 years old. They occupy a long, narrow gallery, and many of the people passing through were evidently blissfully unaware of the stories and significance of such antiquity. Carolyn explained the regal significance, unravelled the lion hunt depicted, and pointed out artistic twists such as the detail on the be-sandalled toes.

"Visit the British Museum – see the world". It's a catchy slogan, and a controversial one, too; the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens today draws yet more attention to the Parthenon Friezes (the Elgin Marbles) and the rights and wrongs of removal and restoration. It is beyond dispute, though, that the British Museum celebrates its collection with all-comers, frequently and freely.

Traveller's Guide

The British Museum is at Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG (020-7323 8000; britishmuseum.org). It opens 10am-5.30pm daily, with late opening of some galleries to 8.30pm on Thursdays and Fridays. The Great Court is open 9am-6pm from Sunday to Wednesday, 9am-11pm from Thursday to Saturday. Admission to the Great Court and main collection is free, with charges made for some special exhibitions.

The daily programme of eyeOpener tours begins each day with Japan at 11am, and concludes with Assyrian Reliefs at 3.45pm. In addition to these free tours, there are "Highlights" guided tours led by Blue Badge guides, for which a charge is made. In addition, there are special gallery talks with guest speakers or curators; details of these are available online.

'A different magnitude': The British Library

The largest public building constructed in the UK this century is Heathrow Terminal 5. Yet you may be surprised to learn that the 20th-century title goes to an institution an hour away on the Piccadilly Line, on the northern edge of central London.

Graduates of universities founded in the Sixties will feel strangely comfortable as they approach the British Library: Colin St John Wilson's brickwork (10 million of them, manufactured to match neighbouring St Pancras station) and the awkward angles of this massive structure resonate with the campuses of Sussex and Warwick. But the business of providing space for endless shelves and studious readers proved a project of an altogether different magnitude in terms of both time and money.

Ten years after the British Library opened, I took advantage of the free "backstage tour" that gives an insight into the audacious scale of the project – which helps you to understand why it took 25 years and cost a fortune.

The tour explains the idea of the library, as a legal deposit for every book published in the British Isles, and its role in providing access for researchers. You are taken behind the scenes to see the reading rooms from a viewing gallery, where you can almost feel the brain power being expended on making connections and elaborations from the printed word. My brain felt a little strained by all the statistics about the miles of shelves and time taken to fetch a book by a Terminal 5-style baggage-handling system.

At the end of the tour you are left happily at the entrance to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, home to documents such as the Magna Carta and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

But I reckon the highlights are some of the most influential scraps of handwriting in history: the last despatch from Antarctica by Captain Scott in 1912, and the scruffy lyrics of "I want to hold your hand", by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

SC

Free gallery tours of the British Library take place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11am. Call 0870-444 1500 or see bl.uk for more information

News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London