Museums across the country will be offering active-duty military personnel and their families a vote of thanks with free admission from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

More than 1,600 museums, including the Gibbes Museum of Art, which hosted a special kick-off tour for Charleston families on Wednesday, are participating in an expanded Blue Star Museums initiative.

The program began in 2010 as a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families and the Defense Department. It’s adding 300 new museums this year.

Participating sites include art museums, history museums, science centers, botanical gardens, nature centers and some 70 children’s museums. Apart from the Gibbes and the North Charleston and American La-?France Fire Museum and Educational Center, 11 other museums in the state are involved.

The Gibbes and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley hosted Blue Star Families advisory member Suzanne Pollack and NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, along with “Army Wives” cast member Brian McNamara and other special guests, for a private tour conducted by Angela D. Mack, Gibbes’ executive director and chief curator.

“It never occurred to me that we’d have any kind of relationship with the military or with Blue Star Families,” Landesman said, “but the program is a tremendous opportunity for the NEA and these participating museums to thanks these families for their service and sacrifice.”

Landesman added that since many military families move to other parts of the country during the summers, free admission to area museums offers an immediate cultural introduction to their new home.

“Not only does it provide an instant connection to the cultural life of that place, it also gives families something interesting to do when children are out of school.”

Landesman and Pollack expect the program will go on indefinitely.

“We started three years ago with 600 museums. Now there’s more than 1,600, with new ones signing up every day. More than 300,000 people attended these museums last year.”

Pollack expects that number will continue to increase.

“So will the numbers of museums,” she said. “We have this vital connection with the arts community, but we are also partnering with other associations.’

First lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, also are helping to promote the effort this year through their Joining Forces initiative to support military families.

In related news, the Interior Department has announced it will provide military families free access to all of the country’s national parks in the country via annual passes.

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.