The Anatomy of Facial Expression – Art-Based Learning in Anatomy

by Victoria McCulloch, Teaching Fellow in Anatomy

2019 Festival of Creative Learning: The Anatomy of Facial Expression

One of the most engaging teaching methods in anatomy education is arts-based learning, and one which creates a relaxed and fun environment.

This is the second year in a row I have run a Festival of Creative Learning workshop using modelling as a teaching method to learn about the muscles of facial expression. I believe everyone should know their own anatomy, understand how it works, and even know what we look like underneath. The use of modelling, such as plasticine as we used in this workshop, aids in our haptic understanding of the structure of the muscles of facial expression, along with offering a nostalgic experience in which people remember playing with plasticine when they were little.

Workshop materials; plastic skull, plasticine and a handout with details of the muscles of facial expression

The historic Anatomical Museum was the setting for this workshop, allowing attendees to experience the history of Anatomy and Medicine at the University of Edinburgh through our fantastic comparative anatomy collection, before getting hands-on with their own anatomy.  This workshop required no prior anatomical knowledge or artistic skills. Over 3 hours we recreated a selection of the muscles of facial expression (there are 43 muscles in the face!) in plasticine on to life-sized plastic skulls, whilst thinking about their attachment sites and what facial expression and emotion they allow us to convey. Anatomical terminology originates from Latin and Greek, and when it comes to the muscles of facial expression there is no escaping the terminology! A good example of this is Levator labii superioris, which means “elevator of the upper lip”, a muscle that allows us to show anger and bare our teeth. I like to talk attendees through the terminology and the origin of the words, as this allow us to understand the function and structure of the muscles better.

At the end of the workshop all attendees step away from their work to appreciate the physical outcome of their learning. Although everyone has modelled the same muscles, every face looks different, showing anatomical variation, because we all vary in different ways from each other. Lining all the skulls up at the end is a great moment, seeing the attendees’ work and the different facial expressions the attendees have unwittingly given their plastic skulls.

The end result; the muscles of facial expression modelled in plasticine showing different expressions!

Arts-based learning is a fantastic way to learn or revise your anatomy. Being hands-on allows us to visualise the three-dimensional structures of the human body, making it a perfect teaching method for all knowledge levels. To find out about public engagement events, including arts-based workshops, run by Anatomy@Edinburgh, please visit the website – .

Thank you to the wonderful attendees, and to the Festival of Creative Learning for funding this workshop.