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Active-duty service members and their families will gain free access to hundreds of museums throughout the nation this summer, thanks to a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and Blue Star Families.

More than 600 museums in 50 states and the District of Columbia have signed up so far to participate in Operation Appreciation: Blue Star Museums. The program offers active-duty service members -- including activated Guard and Reserve -- and up to five of their immediate family members free admission to participating museums from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

"The Blue Star Museums initiative is a tangible expression of appreciation to service members and their families," said Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon's office of family policy, children and youth. "It warms our hearts to see how other federal agencies and local communities can think creatively to recognize their sacrifice and contribution to the nation."

Visit http://www.arts.gov/national/bluestarmuseums/index.php for a complete list of participating museums, which run the gamut from children's and fine arts to history and science museums.

Participating museums include the Art Institute of Chicago, Dallas Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and all of New Mexico's 14 state-run museums and historic monuments.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for service members and their families to enjoy the cultural experiences that might have otherwise been inaccessible because of cost," Thompson said. "We truly appreciate the generosity of the National Endowment for the Arts and the participating museums."

While admission is free, some special or limited-time exhibits may not be included in the program, according to a Blue Star Museums news release. People should contact the museum directly for specifics.

"There have always been wonderful examples of partnerships between museums and military installations, but the scale of this gift from the museum community to military families is thrilling," Kathy Roth-Douquet, chairman of Blue Star Families, said in a news release. "Military families work hard for this country, and it is gratifying for us to be recognized for that.

"We anticipate that thousands of military families will participate in the program and visit museums this summer -- many of them for the first time. Blue Star Families will work hard to help our military families make the most of these opportunities."

A group of military spouses formed Blue Star Families in December 2008 to raise awareness of the challenges of military family life in partnership with civilian communities and leaders, according to the organization's website.

The nonprofit group has grown to include spouses and families from all services and walks of life, including National Guard and Reserve, as well as veterans and civilians.

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