In the centre of the room is a glass case of upright shields. They’re positioned to give visitors a first-person view of a battle between two Indigenous tribes. Standing on one side of the glass, the viewer is the aggressor, on the other side, the defender. Shields are mounted at the level at which they’d be held. The projections of spears powering towards you adds to the sense of confrontation.

It’s the subtle things, like the height of each display, that have the most impact. “The intricacies of exhibition design mean that often you’re doing things that people don’t really notice and that’s half the point,” says lead exhibition designer, Jeremy Green. “You want to make them concentrate on the artefact or the story you’re trying to tell.”

With Shields: Power and Protection in Aboriginal Australia, the South Australian Museum presents 100 items of war sourced from across the land, examining the role and symbolism of shields in Indigenous culture and history. Replica shields by young Kaurna artist Jack Buckskin – who has made it his mission to learn and teach Aboriginal language and dance – sit next to traditional shields dating back 175 years.

“The beginning of the exhibition shows the contemporary world and then moves into the historical element,” says senior designer Brett Chandler. He worked with Justin Gare at ArtLab Australia and freelance model-maker Kenny Monger. “Very early on, we had to look at putting models together looking at how the exhibition would be laid out,” Chandler says.

Trickery was employed to present the precious cargo.

All the shields have custom-made mounts that designers have made fade from the viewer’s attention. Sometimes the mounts are painted to resemble the shield. Other times the mount can be fitted to the handle and be concealed by the shield itself.

The shields are displayed according to region, with information about their design, construction, decorations and cultural significance. Guided tours run on May 16 and May 21 at 12.30pm.

Shields: Power and Protection in Aboriginal Australia continues until May 22, 2016, daily 10am-5pm daily at the Museum of South Australia, North Terrace, $10-$14, free for under-16s accompanied by a paying adult).