Whether you’re new to the First Coast, you’ve been here for ages, or you’re planning your next move, Blue Star Museums are an engaging—and affordable—way to squeeze in some summer fun. This is the 10th summer Blue Star Museums open their doors to active-duty military members and their families across the nation–free of charge. An initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, in collaboration with Blue Star Families and the Department of Defense, Blue Star Museums offer complimentary admission to select museums as well as gardens, aquariums and zoos in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. With more than 2,000 participating institutions this year, all kinds of adventures await.
“We’ve seen the tremendous impact the Blue Star Museums program brings to our military families, and we’re thrilled to be celebrating a decade of support,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, chief executive officer of Blue Star Families, in a recent press release. “Not only are museums fun to explore, but [they’re] great for making memories and strengthening military families as a whole.”
Among Northeast Florida’s Blue Star Museums are the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Mandarin Museum & Historical Society, MOCA Jacksonville, Beaches Museum, Lightner Museum and the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.
Pack up the kids and head to Riverside’s Cummer Museum to beat the heat and see great art and breathtaking garden landscaping, too. Art Connections offers four interactive exhibits, including a gallery for children younger than five and an area to create self-portraits.
“Our city is home to approximately 75,000 active duty, reserve and civilian members of our Armed Forces, and their service is a critical part of our region’s identity. Through our participation in the Blue Star Museum Program, we have welcomed thousands of these families over the past nine years,” said Cummer Museum Director and Chief Executive Officer Adam Levine. “As the largest of our region’s Blue Star Museums, we are honored to open our doors in support of Blue Star Families’ goal of empowering families to thrive as they serve.”
Kids will love creating their own masterpieces in the 2.5-acre historic gardens along the St. Johns River. Art kits, available in compact carrying cases, are free to use–they’re at the garden’s entrance.
Families can also experience world-class art, dating from 2100 BC to the 21st century. There’s a new exhibition just in time for summer: French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950, which displays through Sept. 6.
Situated in the heart of downtown St. Augustine’s historic district at 75 King St. is the Lightner Museum, offering an adventure that’s an ideal starting point in your day of exploration of the Ancient City.
“The Lightner Museum considers it a small but necessary opportunity to participate in the Blue Star Program. Honoring our military and its families has been a decade-long tradition at the Lightner,” says Lightner Museum Director Robert Harper. “We were the first in St. Johns County to take part in Blue Star, and I am happy to see that other institutions have followed suit. The Lightner and its staff consider it an honor to salute our military in this way.”
In the former Alcazar Hotel, the Lightner displays an eclectic collection, from fossils to Tiffany glass and fine art, there’s something for everyone. Pick up a scavenger hunt for the kids at check-in.
The Mandarin Museum & Historical Society is also part of the Blue Star Museums program for military personnel and their families, offering free admission this summer. The museum has set aside a welcome day for military visitors (and the general public), 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 20 at Walter Jones Historical Park, 11964 Mandarin Rd., 268-0784, mandarinmuseum.net. Tour the buildings, see Civil War re-enactors and the exhibit “A Soldier’s Story,” drawing from letters and artifacts of local resident Pvt. Marion J. Losco, who died in WWI in France 101 years ago. There’s a meet-and-greet with Dr. Keith Holland and St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions divers, who recovered Civil War artifacts from U.S. Army Troop Transport Maple Leaf, which lies in the St. Johns at Mandarin Point.
The Beaches Museum offers a little extra in this program: a 10% discount on birthday parties for military children and 10% discount in the Museum store for military families. The museum is right where you'd expect it to be, at 381 Beach Blvd., Jax Beach, 241-5657, beachesmuseum.org.
St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum has joined the program this year, offering military personnel free self-guided tours of buildings on the museum grounds, 81 Lighthouse Ave., St. Augustine, 829-0745, staugustinelighthouse.org.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville has been part of the Blue Star program since 2015, honoring military personnel with free admission. It's located at 333 N. Laura St., Downtown Jacksonville, 366-6911, mocajacksonville.unf.edu.
Free admission is available for those serving in any branch of the U.S. military as well as the Reserves, National Guard, U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps, NOAA Commissioned Corps, and up to five family members. Bring your Geneva Convention Common Access Card (CAC), DD Form 1173 ID Card (Dependent ID), or a DD Form 1173-1 ID Card for proof of eligibility.
Military families can visit the Blue Star Museums’ website throughout the summer for new listings, as museums can join at any time. The program runs through Monday, Sept. 2, Labor Day.